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Confident or out of touch, Bush doesn't waver on Iraq
San Francisco Chronicle


March 17, 2006

WASHINGTON - There was no ambiguity when President Bush declared three years ago that "the security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now."

In a prime-time address, Bush gave Hussein and his sons 48 hours to abandon their country, asserting that their weapons stockpile made it necessary to attack "before it is too late."

After more than 1,000 days of war, 2,311 U.S. deaths, more than a quarter of a trillion dollars spent and no end of turmoil in sight, most Americans say it was a mistake. The doubt has spread to influential neoconservatives who once pushed for a confrontation with Iraq, such as Johns Hopkins University Professor Francis Fukuyama, who now says the war has spawned new terrorists, and Bush supporters such as William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote last month that "one can't doubt the objective in Iraq has failed."

Yet Bush expresses no more doubt today than he did in March 2003, insisting that taking out Hussein has made America safer, no matter the sacrifice to the country or the damage to his presidency.




"We have no doubt that the world is a better place for the removal of this dangerous and unpredictable tyrant, and we have no doubt that the world is better off if tyrants know that they pursue (weapons of mass destruction) at their own peril," reads a new "National Security Strategy" released Thursday by the White House.

Bush's confidence is in part the rhetoric of a commander in chief unwilling to display hesitancy with soldiers still risking life and limb. In this case, it also seems to reflect Bush's post-Sept. 11 view of the world, in which terrorists pose a grave threat to the United States that cannot be ignored. The president frequently tells audiences how he begins each day with a classified briefing that details ominous threats to the nation's security.

"My job is to see the world the way it is, not the way some would hope it would be," Bush said in Florida last month.

Defending the war grows more difficult with each casualty. Conservative estimates place the number of Americans wounded at 13,000 and the number of Iraqis killed above 30,000.

The financial drain on the country has been enormous, already amounting to about $1,000 for every man, women and child. A study by Harvard economist Linda Bilmes and Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the long-term costs of the war at more than $1 trillion. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, developed a list of spending priorities that it argued would have better protected the United States, including $30 billion to secure nuclear material from theft, $24 billion to add two divisions to the Army, $7.5 billion to better protect ports and $7 billion to put 100,000 more police officers on the streets.

And for Bush there has been a political cost that is impossible to calculate. His inability to advance Social Security and other elements of his domestic agenda seems to have a direct relationship to the public's distaste for the war.

The January vote that brought millions of Iraqis to the polls was heralded as a triumph for democracy, but the daily violence has overshadowed such achievements and has left many wondering how the United States can withdraw while providing a semblance of security.

Bush has increasingly turned his attention to confronting the growing domestic anxiety about a mission that is likely to define his place in history. As critics portray him as stubborn, supporters characterize him as resolute even at his own political peril.

"Amid the daily news of car bombs and kidnappings and brutal killings, I can understand why many of our fellow citizens are now wondering if the entire mission was worth it," Bush said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

In speech after speech, the answer from the president is an unambiguous yes.

The White House's continuing rationale for the war in Iraq begins with the assumption that Hussein was a threat to the United States, with or without nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

"This man was harboring terrorists. He was ... a state sponsor of terrorists," Bush told a crowd of supporters in Florida last month. "He was firing at our pilots. He had invaded countries. He was a threat ... and when the United States says something, it must mean it. And we said disclose or face serious consequences. And when he wouldn't, he faced serious consequences. Removing Saddam Hussein has made America safer and the world a better place."

It is a view that is increasingly under attack, particularly as it becomes clear that Hussein had no such weapons and as pictures of the former president railing against his captors in an Iraqi court make it difficult to envision him posing a credible danger to the world's most powerful nation. Scholars like Fukuyama have warned that by invading Iraq, Bush created a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

Yet as off-the-mark as prewar confidence in Hussein's capabilities appears today, the intent was there, Bush insists, even if the weapons were not.

Left unfettered, Bush insists, Hussein would have developed weapons of mass destruction, trained or partnered with terrorists and created the same conditions in Iraq that the Taliban allowed in Afghanistan, which provided al Qaeda the opportunity to carry out the deadly attacks of Sept. 11.

"The president believes that we must remember the clearest lesson of Sept. 11 - that the United States of America must confront threats before they fully materialize," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Thursday as he released the updated National Security Strategy.

The 49-page document makes clear that far from viewing Iraq as a mistake - House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi calls it a "grotesque mistake" - the administration sees it as a necessary struggle in a protracted war against terror.

"We have always known that the war on terror would require great sacrifice," Bush writes in the document's introduction. "We seek to shape the world, not merely be shaped by it; to influence events for the better instead of being at their mercy."


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