Wednesday, March 30, 2005

President Bush, whose approval ratings are at a new low, yesterday sought to remind Americans of his successes by predicting that Iraq will soon have a new government and dispatching his wife to Afghanistan.

“In the last few months, we’ve witnessed successful elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories; peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Beirut; and steps toward democratic reform in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Bush said in a Rose Garden speech. “The trend is clear: Freedom is on the march.”

As the president was speaking, first lady Laura Bush was flying to Afghanistan, where the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001 and helped install a fledgling democracy. She planned to highlight the expanding role of formerly oppressed women, a theme her husband also has emphasized.

“The world has watched Iraqi women vote in enormous numbers,” Mr. Bush said. “The world has seen more than 80 women take their seats as elected representatives in the new assembly.”

The president, who spent years on the defensive for invading Iraq and then miscalculating postwar security problems, is touting Iraq as a success story, as American casualties are declining. But these improvements come as the president’s approval ratings are declining.

According to Gallup, only 45 percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing, or exactly half of the record 90 percent rating he garnered after September 11. The seven previous presidents, at various points in their tenure, had approval ratings of 37 percent or lower.

But even as Mr. Bush sought to highlight progress in Iraq, he acknowledged the fits and starts that characterize any fledgling democracy. Yesterday, Iraq’s National Assembly again postponed the selection of a permanent government.

“We expect a new government will be chosen soon and that the assembly will vote to confirm it,” the president said. “We look forward to working with the government that emerges from this process.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the latest Iraqi delay a healthy sign of democracy, complete with political horsetrading among peaceful factions.

“The Iraqis are on a path to develop a constitution in a year,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “It took us from 1776 to 1789.”

He added: “Will they get there? Sure. Is it going to be as efficient as a dictatorship? No. Is it going to be vastly more desirable? You bet.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan agreed.

“It’s going to take some time to forge a consensus and to reach a compromise,” he said. “And you’re seeing compromise, which is always part of any democracy, move forward. We expect that they will have a new government in place soon.”

Mr. Bush appeared unfazed by the give and take among Iraq’s Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“In forming their new government, the Iraqis have shown that the spirit of compromise has survived more than three decades of dictatorship,” he said. “They will need that spirit in the weeks and months ahead, as they continue the hard work of building their democracy.”

The remarks were greeted with warm applause by Iraqis in the Rose Garden, including a group of law students visiting the United States for an international competition. Also on hand were the organizers of elections held for Iraqis living in the United States and representatives of Iraq’s various religions who are in Washington to learn about democracy.

“By claiming their own freedom, the Iraqis are transforming the region, and they’re doing it by example and inspiration, rather than by conquest and domination,” the president said. “The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could — making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East.”

After his speech, Mr. Bush was briefed on a report by a bipartisan commission that he appointed to investigate intelligence failures on Iraq. The report will be released tomorrow, and the president will discuss it with reporters in a White House appearance with commission members.

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