Saturday, September 6, 2003

President Bush will give a rare, nationally televised speech during prime time tomorrow, laying out his case for staying the course on Iraq, where U.S. casualties have mounted.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the 15-minute speech, to be delivered at 8:30 p.m. from the White House, comes at a “critical moment in the war on terrorism.”

“Iraq is now a central part in the war on terrorism,” the spokesman told reporters. “The world has a stake in helping the Iraqi people realize a better future, realize a free and democratic society. The world has a stake in confronting the terrorists that have come into Iraq.”

A senior administration official said the president will use the speech to remind Americans that while the stakes are high in Iraq, the United States has a strategy to win. The president will also emphasize that peace in Iraq, with its strategic location in the Middle East, is critical to U.S. security interests.

“We must never forget the lessons of September 11, 2001, a sobering reminder that oceans no longer can protect us from forces of evil who can’t stand what America stands for,” Mr. Bush said yesterday in a speech on the economy in Indianapolis.

The political climate for Mr. Bush is dramatically different than the last time he gave a televised address, a May 1st speech from the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to triumphantly announce the end of major combat operations.

Since then, 149 Americans have died in Iraq, exceeding the 138 who perished during major combat operations. That has prompted Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress to sharply increase their criticism of Mr. Bush, whose prosecution of the war on terror was once considered politically untouchable.

“This president is a miserable failure,” declared Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri during a Democratic presidential debate Thursday.

Yesterday, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called on Mr. Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. He said they had made “repeated and serious miscalculations.”

The Washington Times on Wednesday disclosed a secret report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that said planning for the rebuilding phase of the Iraq war was late in starting and not ready for activation when the war began March 19.

Tomorrow’s speech was announced late yesterday, as the president traveled in Indiana to talk up the economy and raise funds for his re-election campaign. With the economic recovery showing signs of acceleration, Mr. Bush decided to turn his attention back to the less-hopeful topic of Iraq.

Mr. McClellan told reporters traveling with the president that the speech would recount America’s progress in Iraq and sketch out “our needs going forward.” A senior administration official said Mr. Bush decided in principle Aug. 26 at his ranch in Texas to give the speech, then made the final decision yesterday.

The White House asked the broadcast networks to carry the speech live and in its entirety. The cable news channels have already agreed to do so.

That allows the president to sidestep what he considers an often-unflattering media “filter” and take his message directly to the American public. He is expected to characterize Iraq as merely the latest battle in a broader war against terrorism that includes Afghanistan and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The president’s speech comes just days after he authorized Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution to further internationalize peacekeeping efforts in Iraq. Although all troops would report to an American commander, the U.S. military would have to report periodically to the United Nations, Mr. Powell said.

France and Germany are balking because the United Nations would not have sufficient control.

Mr. Bush also could use the speech to announce how much money he is requesting from Congress to fund the U.S. military deployment in Iraq and its reconstruction. He is said to be considering a request for between $65 billion and $80 billion.

The White House asserted in the run-up to the war that Iraqi oil reserves would pay for reconstruction, but critics said Mr. Bush’s budget office was overly optimistic.

Mr. Bush, in an interview with CNBC, said he would “look at” one congressional proposal under which Washington would be paid back with future Iraqi oil revenues.

“But first of all, the oil revenues in Iraq really aren’t as steady as they will be in the future. I mean, I don’t think we can count on much in the short term,” Mr. Bush said, according to a transcript of the Thursday interview.

In Indianapolis yesterday, Mr. Bush said: “This nation will spend what it takes to win the war on terror and to protect the American people. My attitude is, anytime we put our troops in harm’s way, they deserve the best pay, the best training and the best possible equipment.”

In the CNBC interview, Mr. Bush also criticized China for manipulating its currency in order to boost sales of Chinese exports.

The president told CNBC’s Ron Insana that Treasury Secretary John W. Snow had failed during recent talks in Beijing to persuade China to tie its currency value to the market.

“We don’t think we’re being treated fairly when a currency is controlled by the government,” Mr. Bush said. “We believe the currency ought to be controlled by the market and ought to reflect the true values of the respective economies.”

The president said Mr. Snow “did deliver a strong message from the administration: That we expect our trading partners to treat our people fairly — our producers and workers, and farmers, and manufacturers.”

He added: “I look forward to hearing their response to him, and then we’ll deal with it accordingly.”

But Mr. Bush acknowledged the administration cannot take too hard a stance on the currency policy of China, a nation the United States is relying upon to help thwart North Korea’s nuclear proliferation.

“The relationships are complicated,” he said. “We’ll have to assess all the issues.”

Mr. Bush also spoke about last month’s spike in gasoline prices, saying his administration would prosecute anyone who is found to have gouged motorists. He suggested prices might come down soon.

“Frankly, I’ve seen some reports where there’s non-OPEC oil beginning to come online, and that’ll be positive for American consumers,” the president said. “You know, the best thing that you can do diplomatically is to try to prevent enormous spikes.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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