WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush has pleaded with a war-weary US public to give his unpopular Iraq strategy a chance, warning that a US defeat could ignite an “epic battle” engulfing the entire Middle East.
“For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective,” Bush said in his annual State of the Union speech, striking a more defiant than downbeat tone despite his mounting political woes.
Two weeks after unveiling a new strategy centered on sending 21,500 more soldiers into battle, the embattled president gave no ground to his critics and urged lawmakers and the US public: “Give it a chance to work.”
Bush, fighting to save his presidency and derail pending congressional action against his Iraq plan, also laid out a handful of domestic policies to cut US gasoline use and pollution, expand health care, and reform immigration.
But the chief goal of the 49-minute televised speech was to win a reprieve on Iraq from a skeptical US public and an increasingly hostile US Congress, led by opposition Democrats for the first time in a dozen years.
With his poll numbers mired at record lows, and many Americans dubious that the war launched in March 2003 can be won, Bush insisted that: “On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle.”
“So let us find our resolve, and turn events towards victory,” he said, as lawmakers prepared to take up symbolic legislation sharply critical of deepening US military involvement in the war.
Mindful that roughly two in three Americans oppose his plan, Bush said that he and US military commanders had looked at all options in Iraq. “In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance for success,” he said.
The president also acknowledged a dramatic upsurge in sectarian violence, telling Americans leery of seeing US troops caught in the crossfire: “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.”
That appeared to be a reversal from Bush’s promise, made at an October 25, 2006 press conference, that “Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions.”
In fact, while Bush tied events in Iraq to the war on terrorism — which he declared in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks — he focused on the threat of future sectarian strife.
“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides,” he said.
“We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by Al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict,” he said.
In an answer to global critics who accuse him of neglecting climate change, Bush called for a 20-percent cut in US gasoline use by 2017, a move the White House said would lead to steep cuts in emissions partly blamed for global warming.
He also called for a doubling of US emergency oil reserves by 2027, and made a renewed push for a sweeping immigration reform plan that, with its emphasis on a guest worker program, could draw more support from Democrats than from his own Republicans.
Bush also called for tax code-based health care reforms that seemed to have little chance of becoming law, and vowed to submit spending plans in two weeks that would balance the budget in five years.
He congratulated the Democrats on winning the November 2006 elections, retaking Congress for the first time since 1994, and paid a special tribute to Pelsoi as the first woman speaker of the House.
The official Democratic response to the speech, delivered by Senator Jim Webb — a Vietnam veteran whose son is a Marine in Iraq — was tough and blunt.
“The president took us into this war recklessly,” said Webb. “The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military, nor does Congress. We need a new direction.”
Webb said the Democrats are calling for “an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.”
He then invoked past Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, describing how the former helped heal domestic class divisions and the latter brought US soldiers home from the Korean war.
“Tonight we are calling on this president to take similar action,” Webb said.
“If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.”