President Bush, addressing Americans from the Oval Office for the first time since he took the nation to war nearly three years ago, defiantly declared last night that “not only can we win the war in Iraq — we are winning the war in Iraq.”
In the prime-time speech, the president acknowledged invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence, conceded that the battle has been “more difficult than we expected,” and warned Americans that there is “more testing and sacrifice before us … and you will continue to see the grim results on the evening news.”
But with Democrats aligned in opposition to nearly every move he makes in Iraq and advocating immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces there, the president asked skeptical Americans to remain patient and reject despair.
“I know that this war is controversial, yet being your president requires doing what I believe is right and accepting the consequences,” he said in his 17-minute address. “And tonight, I ask all of you listening to carefully consider the stakes of this war, to realize how far we have come and the good we are doing, and to have patience in this difficult, noble and necessary cause.”
Three days after 10 million Iraqis voted to choose a four-year parliament in an election that passed peacefully around the country — with an estimated 70 percent turnout — the president said that even though violence will continue, “it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East.”
The Iraqi election “means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror,” he said. “And I have never been more certain that America’s actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens and will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren.”
Mr. Bush took direct aim at congressional Democrats opposed to his administration’s prosecution of the war, and called for an end to the partisan bickering that has gridlocked Washington.
“There is a difference between honest critics who recognize what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right,” he said. “Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts. For every scene of destruction in Iraq, there are more scenes of rebuilding and hope. For every life lost, there are countless more lives reclaimed. And for every terrorist working to stop freedom in Iraq, there are many more Iraqis and Americans working to defeat them.”
Democratic congressional leaders reacted harshly to Mr. Bush’s speech. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the speech showed the president “still does not get it,” while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that “the American people have still not heard what benchmarks we must meet along the way to know that progress is being made.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, accused Mr. Bush of attempting “to silence his critics by calling them defeatists.”
In his speech, the president asked those “who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq” to put aside past differences.
“I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet now there are only two options before our country — victory or defeat.
“And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance. I do not expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom,” he said.
With more than more than 2,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, the president talked directly to Americans who wonder whether the war is worth the price.
“Some look at the challenges in Iraq, and conclude that the war is lost, and not worth another dime or another day. I don’t believe that. Our military commanders do not believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifice, do not believe that America has lost.
“And not even the terrorists believe it. We know from their own communications that they feel a tightening noose — and fear the rise of a democratic Iraq,” Mr. Bush said.
To skeptics who have said that the Iraq war has created more terrorists and more animosity toward the United States, the president said “this is not the threat I see.”
“September 11th, 2001, required us to take every emerging threat to our country seriously, and it shattered the illusion that terrorists attack us only after we provoke them. On that day, we were not in Iraq, we were not in Afghanistan, but the terrorists attacked us anyway — and killed nearly 3,000 men, women and children in our own country.
“My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them. And we will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad, removing their safe havens and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share.”
The president also said that the terrorists now battling U.S. forces “do not merely object to American actions in Iraq and elsewhere — they object to our deepest values and our way of life.”
“And if we were not fighting them in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens — they would be on the offense, and headed our way.”
Mr. Bush’s approval ratings have risen from their all-time low during a quartet of presidential speeches over the last two weeks, during which the president has outlined U.S. plans for victory in Iraq. The speeches appear to have bolstered public support for the war. A new Associated Press poll shows that 57 percent of Americans oppose an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor, and I will not allow it,” the president said.
c This article is based in part on wire service reports.