SYDNEY, Australia, (AP) -President Bush took advantage of a vacationing Congress, a surprise visit to once-restive Anbar province and supportive words from Australia’s prime minister to trumpet his claims of progress in Iraq. Now he must press his case to skeptical lawmakers and a war-weary U.S. public.
The coming week may be his last opportunity to shift the debate — or at least to give Republicans political cover and throw Democrats off stride.
The White House rollout strategy envisions a presidential speech to the nation, either Thursday or Friday.
Next week will start off with testimony to Congress on Monday and Tuesday by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, widely admired by both Republicans and Democrats, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Tuesday also marks the sixth anniversary of the worst terror attacks on U.S soil, giving the administration an opportunity to link present-day al-Qaeda extremists in Iraq with Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The administration sees Bush’s trip to Iraq and the events of next week as a package to put the best face on the troop buildup he announced in January. Even as opposition to the war grew at home, the U.S. military presence swelled by 30,000 to roughly 160,000.
“If you had asked two months ago, ‘Is the surge succeeding?’ people would have said, ‘Ah, we’re getting killed.’ I mean literally,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said in an interview. “But now it’s very obvious that on the military side there has been some profound progress. And that progress also has real political implications in terms of the Iraqi people standing up to the folks who have been trying to blow up the government.”
Democrats don’t see it that way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a string of recent reports — from the National Intelligence Estimate, the Government Accountability Office and an independent commission led by retired Marine Gen. James Jones — “document the widespread failure of the Iraqi government to meet critical political reform benchmarks set by President Bush himself in January.”
“The stay-the-course strategy by Gen. Petraeus and the president to leave all troops in Iraq has been rejected by the American people,” Pelosi said. “We need a new direction in Iraq that will protect our troops, promote stability in the region and make America more secure.”
The president, Petraeus and Crocker have telegraphed the Petraeus report’s likely conclusions in advance:
_That the military buildup has had its successes, particularly in parts of Baghdad and in Anbar province, once a stronghold of Sunni militants.
_That many of those same militants are now joining ranks with U.S. forces in battling al-Qaeda extremists.
_That political progress among rival factions within the central government has been less noticeable, but that there have been some encouraging recent moves toward reconciliation.
Bush says some U.S. troop reductions might be justified if security continues to rise. But the basic evolving administration message to Congress appears to be: give the buildup some more time — perhaps into early next year — since it seems to be working.
“We’re going to succeed in Iraq,” Bush told a business audience here for the annual gathering of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
That this year’s APEC meeting was held in Australia turned out to be a gift to the White House.
Not only did it provide an opportunity to go to Iraq — it’s sort of on the way if you head east to west — but Prime Minister John Howard, the host, is an unabashed supporter of Bush’s Iraq policy, perhaps the last among world leaders.
With former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gone from office and British troops leaving southern Iraq, Howard’s defiant insistence that the roughly 1,600 Australian troops now in Iraq would remain must have been music to Bush’s ears.
Even though Howard’s own political career may soon be ended because of his support for that unpopular war, his strong backing of Bush’s military buildup came at just the right time as the president braced to face his congressional critics upon his return.
Congress’ recess also gave the president a chance to command headlines.
“He has taken advantage of the absence of Congress to buy time,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But claims of progress by Bush and Petraeus don’t always match developments seen by others, and there’s a limit to how much additional time Bush can buy. “A lot of these issues are going to counterbalance what he says,” said Cordesman.
Michele Flournoy, a Pentagon strategist during the Clinton administration, said the administration is clearly “trying to keep the ‘surge’ at least until next spring, its natural end.” That’s when the first of the 30,000 additional troops Bush sent to Iraq start returning home.
“Then they’ll declare a degree of victory,” she suggested. And since there is not enough consensus in the Democratic-run Congress to block Bush’s plan, “were in for more of the same,” Flournoy said.
Snow, the presidential spokesman, said that Bush will try to “restage the debate” to be more bipartisan and more reflective of national-interest concerns.
“It would be kind of nice to break through the idea that the war has be a cleavage point and that, to be a good Democrat you have to be against it. Frankly, you’ve seen a number of Democrats coming back (from Iraq) saying, ‘No, well, we see real progress,'” he said.
He acknowledged dissent on the Republican side, and conceded, “It’s an issue where people certainly can have dissenting views.”