- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2006

President Bush yesterday pledged to remain in Iraq throughout his presidency and put the issue squarely at the top of this year’s congressional elections, saying it will be a defining difference between Republicans and Democrats.

“Either you say, yes, it’s important that we stay there and get it done, or we leave. We’re not leaving so long as I’m the president,” the president said at a press conference yesterday morning, in which he also announced expanded U.S. aid for Lebanon and Israel, defended the pace of progress on rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and said the United Nations must be ready to impose sanctions on Iran.

The Iraq war dominated the nearly hourlong session, with the president defending his goals in the Middle East, although he acknowledged the war is “straining the psyche” of Americans here at home. He also said he is concerned about a civil war in Iraq, a term the White House had been avoiding.

But the president said that if the U.S. loses the will to help other nations toward freedom, “we will have lost our soul as a nation,” adding that the terrorists are watching the political debate this year.

“Any sign that says we’re going to leave before the job is done simply emboldens terrorists and creates a certain amount of doubt for people so they won’t take the risk necessary to help a civil society evolve in the country,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m sure they’re watching the campaign carefully. There are a lot of good, decent people saying: ‘Get out now; vote for me, I will do everything I can’ to, I guess, cut off money, is what they’ll try to do to get our troops out. It’s a big mistake.”

Democrats said they welcome the election-year debate and charged Mr. Bush isn’t offering anything concrete for voters to back.

“‘Stay the course’ has produced the situation President Bush now decries, and his repeated failure to offer a new direction provides no hope for a lessening of the sectarian violence that is the greatest threat to Iraq’s future,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “Democrats believe it’s time for a new direction in Iraq, with responsible redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq that begins this year.”

And Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, said Mr. Bush was wrong when he said Iraq was straining Americans’ psyche.

“The American psyche isn’t the problem. The problem is this administration’s disastrous Iraq policy,” the Massachusetts senator said. “Patience is strained because almost five years later, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, and gone is the promise of ‘wanted dead or alive.’ The administration’s credibility is strained because the president’s mantra that ‘U.S. troops will stand down as Iraqis stand up’ is another misleading myth, and ‘stay the course’ is a recipe for disaster when the course is broken.”

Mr. Bush stressed that he is not calling Democrats unpatriotic, but he said the election will be a referendum on where the two parties stand.

“Elections are won based upon economic issues and national-security issues,” he said. “And there’s a fundamental difference between many of the Democrats and my party, and that is, they want to leave before the job is completed in Iraq.”

Democratic voters in Connecticut catapulted the issue to the forefront earlier this month when they nominated Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, instead of incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman is running as an independent, and yesterday Mr. Bush gave him a boost by saying he will not endorse the Republican candidate in that race.

“I’m going to stay out of Connecticut,” he said.

He said that if he were a candidate, he would run by charging that Democrats will raise taxes, touting Republican economic policies that he credited with cutting the projected deficit this year and campaigning on a promise to address long-term Social Security and Medicare costs.

Mr. Bush yesterday also:

• Said he is comfortable with the $110 billion that the federal government has committed to rescue, recovery and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, but said those on the ground should be patient as the efforts continue.

• Defended his nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, in the face of criticism from conservatives who think he will approve over-the-counter sales of Plan B, a morning-after contraceptive pill widely attacked in pro-life circles as an abortifacient. Mr. Bush said that minors should be required to have a prescription for the pill.

• Said the United Nations faces a test later this month as the deadline approaches for Iran to suspend its nuclear program and must move quickly to approve sanctions if Iran doesn’t meet the target.

“In order for the U.N. to be effective, there must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council,” the president said.

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