- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

FORT POLK, La. — President Bush yesterday defended the righteousness of the war in Iraq and made clear that he will stake his re-election on his doctrine of spreading freedom throughout the world as a bulwark against terrorist attacks.

“We don’t shirk from any challenge. We are rising to the call of history,” Mr. Bush told 7,000 troops stationed at this sprawling Army base in west-central Louisiana. “Now and in the future, this great republic will lead the cause of freedom and peace.”

Fort Polk has sent more than 10,000 troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, 12 of whom have been killed in action.

Democrats have been critical of Mr. Bush’s execution of the war in Iraq, saying he believed faulty intelligence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding chemical and biological weapons or that Mr. Bush manipulated intelligence to justify a war he had been determined to wage.

Mr. Bush, faced with recent public opinion polls that show a slip in support for the war, pointed out that he was not the only one who thought that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

“My administration looked at the intelligence and saw danger,” he said. “Members of Congress looked at the same intelligence, and they saw danger. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence and saw a danger.”

Mr. Bush is attempting to persuade the public that the war in Iraq and the successful operation to oust the terrorist-supporting Taliban government of Afghanistan are battles in the overarching war on terror — a notion rejected by most Democrats.

The president also made clear that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, profoundly changed his presidency, and he hinted at reminding the public of that on the campaign trail.

“Life in America in many ways has returned to normal, and that is a good thing,” Mr. Bush said. “And I want every American to know that I understand my job as your president. I have a duty to protect the American people, and my resolve is the same today as it was on the morning of September 12, 2001.”

After the speech, Mr. Bush met with seven families who lost loved ones in the war on terror, then had lunch — a standard “meal ready to eat” containing a beef enchilada — with hundreds of National Guard troops who were training at Fort Polk before deploying to Iraq in March.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the meeting with the National Guardsmen had been scheduled long before Democrats raised questions about whether Mr. Bush had completed his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. However, soldiers escorting reporters around the base said they had heard only a few days ago that their commander in chief was coming.

The White House last week released 400 documents of Mr. Bush’s military record to prove that he was a certified pilot, was properly transferred to a base in Alabama, and was honorably discharged five months early to attend Harvard Business School.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and his party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination, countered Mr. Bush’s trip to Fort Polk with a press release that highlighted his own combat service in the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kerry — who often contrasts his military experience with Mr. Bush’s by saying at campaign rallies, “I know something about aircraft carriers for real” — said Mr. Bush has cut veterans benefits in his latest federal budget proposal.

“When I returned home from Vietnam, I joined my fellow veterans in vowing never to abandon any veterans of America’s wars,” Mr. Kerry said in the statement. “My commitment to veterans has never wavered and never will.”

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