TOBYHANNA, Pa.- President Bush strongly rebuked congressional critics of his Iraq war policy Friday, accusing them of being "deeply irresponsible" and sending the wrong signal both to America”s enemy and to U.S. troops.
"The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges," Bush said in his most combative defense yet of his rationale for invading Iraq in March 2003.
Bush”s charges brought a forceful response from senior Democrats in Congress, who accused the president of misleading the country about the justification for war. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who ran unsuccessfully against Bush last year, accused the president of playing "the politics of fear and smear."
Bush”s speech was part of a coordinated White House effort to bolster the president”s waning credibility and dwindling support for the war, in which more than 2,000 U.S. troops have died.
As casualties have climbed, Bush”s popularity has dropped. His approval rating now is at 37 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, an all-time low point for his presidency.
"When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support," Bush said in a Veterans Day speech at Tobyhanna Army Depot.
"While it”s perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began."
Bush”s remarks brought a few jabs from fellow Republicans as well as a sharp counterattack from Democrats.
In a speech in Philadelphia, Sen. Rick Santorum (news, bio, voting record), R-Pa., criticized how the war has been presented to Americans — both by the media and the White House. Afterward, Santorum said the war has been "less than optimal" and "maybe some blame could be laid" at the White House. "Certainly, mistakes were made," Santorum said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (news, bio, voting record), R-Neb., who is weighing a run for president in 2008, has said he agrees with Democrats who are pressing the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to move forward with an investigation into whether the administration manipulated intelligence.
"I was probably the main driver on the Republican side because I thought we needed the answers to whether intelligence was misused, intentionally or unintentionally," Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald in a story published Friday.
Defending the march to war, Bush said foreign intelligence services and Democrats and Republicans alike were convinced at the time that Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, had weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations, he noted, had passed more than a dozen resolutions citing Saddam”s development and possession of such weapons.
Accusing his critics of making false charges, Bush said: "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America”s will.
"As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Democrats would continue to press for a full airing of the facts about prewar intelligence and said asking tough questions was his party”s way of standing with the troops.
"Americans seek the truth about how the nation committed our troops to war because the decision to go to war is too serious to be entered into under faulty pretenses," Reid said.
White House officials fanned out to television appearances to reinforce Bush”s argument and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman added his voice. He said Democrats who once worried that Saddam was amassing weapons of mass destruction now want an investigation of the intelligence. "Maybe this investigation will reveal that they were brainwashed," Mehlman said in a speech to be delivered Friday evening in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Criticism about prewar intelligence has been stoked by the recent indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney”s chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in the CIA leak investigation.
The probe aims to identify who leaked the identity of an undercover CIA officer whose husband, a former ambassador, alleged that the administration relied on faulty intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Kerry accused the president of playing politics on a holiday set aside to honor veterans.
"This administration misled a nation into war by cherry-picking intelligence and stretching the truth beyond recognition. That”s why Scooter Libby has been indicted. That”s why a statement in the State of the Union Address was retracted," said Kerry, who voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to wage war but later voted against additional funds for Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction.
"It”s a dangerous day for our national security when an administration”s word is no good," Kerry said.
Bush chose to go on the road this Veterans Day to make his forceful defense of the war, leaving Cheney in Washington to attend traditional wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass., accused Bush of using Veterans Day as "a campaign-like attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War."
Bush”s political adviser Karl Rove, who is still under the cloud of the CIA leak investigation, hopped Air Force One to attend the speech, an indication that it was a political event.
Bush shared the stage with a tan Army depot vehicle, and banners behind him read "Strategy for Victory." "Hail to the Chief," which is rarely played to mark Bush”s arrival, blared from speakers in the warehouse.