President Bush last night called on the United Nations to take greater control of postwar Iraq, which he said has degenerated into the central battleground in the global war against terrorism.
“Members of the United Nations now have an opportunity, and the responsibility, to assume a broader role in assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation,” Mr. Bush said in a rare prime-time address to the nation.
For the first time, the president said it would cost $87 billion to continue peacekeeping operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the bulk of that money — $66 billion — going directly to the Pentagon. Billions more would go toward Iraq’s reconstruction, including the establishment of police and military forces.
The speech came amid growing doubts about America’s ability to single-handedly restore order in Iraq, the site of almost daily attacks against GIs and three major bombings in recent weeks. More Americans have died in Iraq since May 1, when the president declared an end to major combat operations, than during the three-week war itself.
Although the United Nations balked at backing the war, Mr. Bush recently has resigned himself to asking the world body for help in winning the peace. He said “enlisting the support of other nations” is now a primary component of the administration’s Iraq strategy.
“We cannot let past differences interfere with present duties,” Mr. Bush said.
By taking his case directly to the American people, the president sought to counter the daily drumbeat of negative headlines from Iraq. He implored Americans to take the long view of the war on terror, which he said will require the kind of patience and resolve it took to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II.
“Two years ago, I told the Congress and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy war, a different kind of war, fought on many fronts in many places,” he said from the White House.
“Iraq is now the central front. Enemies of freedom are making a desperate stand there — and there they must be defeated. This will take time and require sacrifice.”
The president’s 19-minute speech did little to quell mounting criticism from Democratic presidential contenders, such as Howard Dean, who waited just 10 minutes after Mr. Bush stopped speaking to critique the performance during a conference call with reporters.
Mr. Dean later issued a statement saying the speech, while welcome, “does not make up for 15 months of misleading the American people on why we should go to war against Iraq or 15 weeks of mismanaging the reconstruction effort since we have been there.”
Other Democrats lashed out even before the president spoke. Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that postwar planning for Iraq is “a shambles. I want the president to tell us what’s really in store for Americans,” she said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
“How much are we going to pay? What is the possible loss of life going forward?” she said. “And how is he going to repair the damage to our relationship with international organizations, so that they step up and bear a reasonable share of this?”
Mr. Bush touched on some of those issues, although not with a level of specificity likely to satisfy his Democratic detractors.
Aside from disclosing a specific price tag for peacekeeping operations, he spoke in mostly broad terms about the overarching strategy of the global war on terrorism.
“The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations,” he said. “The triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and beyond, would be a grave setback for international terrorism.”
Mr. Bush also addressed the recent bombings in Iraq, which killed scores at a U.N. headquarters, the Jordanian Embassy and a Shi’ite mosque. He called the attacks “localized,” stressing that large areas of Iraq are relatively secure.
“There is more at work in these attacks than blind rage,” he said. “The terrorists have a strategic goal. They want us to leave Iraq before our work is done. They want to shake the will of the civilized world.
“In the past, the terrorists have cited the examples of Beirut and Somalia, claiming that if you inflict harm on Americans, we will run from a challenge,” he added. “In this, they are mistaken.”
The president spent part of his speech defending his doctrine of military pre-emption. He said the policy is preventing further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
“Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength — they are invited by the perception of weakness,” he said. “And the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans.
“We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today, so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities,” he added.
Mr. Bush also emphasized that the United States will not be in Iraq forever. He said handing over control to Iraqis can be expedited through a resolution that the United States is shopping to the U.N. Security Council.
“From the outset, I have expressed confidence in the ability of the Iraqi people to govern themselves,” he added. “Now they must rise to the responsibilities of a free people, and secure the blessings of their own liberty.”
Critics of the president said he gave the speech to reverse a slide in his popularity. A recent Zogby poll showed Mr. Bush’s job approval rating at 45 percent, although the latest Gallup poll has it much higher, at 59 percent.
White House aides said Mr. Bush was merely updating the nation on the ongoing war effort. The president used lofty rhetoric to stir emotions four days before the two-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We have been tested these past 24 months, and the dangers have not passed,” he said. “Yet, Americans are responding with courage and confidence.
“We accept the duties of our generation; we are active and resolute in our own defense; we are serving in freedom’s cause,” he concluded. “And that is the cause of all mankind.”