by Bill Straub
Scripps Howard News Service
January 27, 2005
During a hastily called press conference in a crowded White House press room, Bush rejected any notion that the United States is failing to make progress in Iraq and warned that calls for troop withdrawals will lead the Iraqi people to begin "wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves."
"The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves," Bush said. "Their objective is to stop the advance of democracy. Freedom scares them."
His remarks during the wide-ranging, 40-minute session were delivered on the deadliest day for U.S. forces since the war began 22 months ago: 31 Marines were killed in a helicopter crash near Iraq's border with Jordan, four Marines were killed in combat in the Al-Anbar province and two U.S. soldiers were killed in the Baghdad area.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were aggressively using the debate over Condoleezza Rice's nomination to serve as secretary of state - she was confirmed in an 85-13 vote - to blast administration handling of the hostilities. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said that the president led the country into an unprovoked and unjustified war based on false information regarding Iraq's ties to terrorists.
And the public might also be growing weary of an engagement with no end in sight. A CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted Jan. 14-18, showed that 55 percent of those questioned disapprove of the manner in which Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, while only 40 percent approve.
But the president defended the initiative despite the cost in both lives and dollars. The United States is helping Iraq develop a democracy because, "in the long-term, our children and grandchildren will benefit from a free Iraq."
"The notion that somehow we're not making progress I just don't subscribe to," Bush said. "I mean, we're having elections. And I think we need to put this moment in history in proper context. That context, of course, starts with whether or not the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power and whether or not America would be more secure."
Bush said he is heartened by the bravery displayed by an Iraqi populace facing targeted assassinations and other threats of violence and he expects "a lot of Iraqis will vote" in the country's first democratic election even though some are intimidated.
"But they want to vote," he said. "They want to participate in democracy. They want to be able to express themselves. And, to me, that is encouraging."
Sunday's election will not only set the stage for the construction of a new Iraqi constitution, Bush said, but also lay the groundwork for eventual U.S. withdrawal, although he avoided setting any deadline. The United States, he said, will "complete the mission as quickly as possible."
"Over the next year we'll be advancing our plan to make sure the Iraqis are better prepared to defend themselves and to fight," he said. "There's been some really fine units that have been stood up so far, and obviously we want to make sure there are more units that are capable of fighting.
"Listen, this problem will eventually be solved when the Iraqis take the initiative and the Iraqi people see Iraqi soldiers willing to defend them."
On the domestic front, Bush said he will soon ask Congress to act on his Social Security reform initiative "so that we don't pass a bankrupt system on to our children and our grandchildren." He expressed a willingness to work with Republicans and Democrats to produce results.
The president has yet to issue details of a plan or even commit to offering a formal proposal, instead citing "the need to work together to get a solution that will fix the problem." He did say that any solution should include a provision for private accounts - permitting beneficiaries to devote a portion of their payments to a personal investment program - and a prohibition against increasing payroll taxes.
"The math shows that we have an issue and now is the time to come together to solve it," Bush said, adding that "it is worth the political price" to confront the sensitive issue.
Bush repeated warnings that the system will have to begin dipping into the Social Security trust funds beginning in 2018 and that the system will run dry, according to system trustees, by 2042.
"That's because people are living longer and the number of people paying into the Social Security trust is dwindling," he said.
But Democrats and some Republicans, while acknowledging long-range issues, say Bush is overstating the extent of the problem. They say that the system is not going bankrupt - almost 75 percent of benefits will continue to be paid after the trust funds are depleted - nor is it going broke.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada expressed a willingness to work with Bush and the Republicans on Social Security. But he maintained that some issues are "off the table," saying "we should not pursue a privatization plan that will make deep cuts in benefits and create $2 trillion in additional debt."
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