Linking Iraq with 9/11
With war worries growing, the president evokes the attacks of 2001 in a speech he hopes will rally support

June 29, 2005

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- In the past, when sagging polls have put President George W. Bush in trouble, he has invoked the event that shaped his presidency to confront critics and rally public support, the Sept. 11 attacks.

He did it again last night, wrapping the Iraq war in the mantle of 9/11 to reject calls for an exit timetable and appeal for patience from an increasingly skeptical public. Never forget "the lessons of September the 11th," Bush warned, or risk handing victory in Iraq to the likes of Osama bin Laden.

It was Bush's most direct and high-profile link between Iraq and Sept. 11 since winning re-election - and as usual, he failed to mention that the Sept. 11 commission found no credible evidence linking the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and the 2001 terror attacks.

Instead, he invoked 9/11 to crystallize public support for what has become an open-ended conflict, much the way he asked the nation in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to brace for a war-on-terror both global and generational in scope.

"Is the sacrifice worth it?" he asked an audience of 750 troops at an Army base here. "It is worth it and it is vital to the security of our country."

No retreat
Bush also sought to confront growing calls for a timetable for withdrawal but said it would be a "serious mistake."

"I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I," said Bush, who also rejected calls for adding more U.S. troops. He said a deadline for a troop pullout "would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is wait us out."

The speech broke no new ground on how Bush envisions a U.S. departure from Iraq. Instead, he tried to better explain his long-held strategy of ultimately turning over responsibilities to Iraqi security forces and politicians - and insisted both are making far greater progress than is apparent from the images of violence on the nightly news.

And in some ways, Bush was asking Americans to look past those images and a death toll rising past 1,740 Americans and to recall instead the images of that September 2001 morning.

He wore a symbol of his support for the troops that he received before his speech. The widow of a fallen soldier, Crystal Owen, gave him a bracelet with the names of her husband and another soldier killed with him on Oct. 15, 2004.

Flag-draped appeals
Bush administration critics have long faulted the president for trying to conflate the Iraq war with the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to drum up public support with flag-draped appeals to patriotism, especially in the face of slipping poll numbers during the presidential campaign last year.

Bush at that time said he never tried to blame Hussein for the attacks even as he continued to talk up Baghdad's links with al-Qaida - an argument that took root with sizable numbers of American voters who believed Hussein had a role in 9/11.

And just last week, 9/11 made another appearance, when Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, accused liberals of a weak response to the Sept. 11 attacks, prompting Democratic cries that he was politicizing the tragedy.

Bush was careful last night not to draw a direct link, but mentioning bin Laden in a speech so heavily focused on Iraq, in such a high-profile and high-stakes setting, signaled his desire to link the events in the minds of viewers. His aides insisted they were not revisiting the debate over Iraq and 9/11 but merely talking about bin Laden followers in Iraq today, with Bush himself quoting bin Laden as calling the Iraq conflict the "Third World War."

Yet the strategy Bush outlined last night is in many respects the very one that has drawn so much skepticism from the public. Even some in his own party are growing impatient, sharply challenging Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq last week.

Independent pollster John Zogby said the speech didn't give viewers hungry for news on how the president hopes to get out of Iraq much new to consider. "I think the president was giving them same old, same old," Zogby said.

But Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) defended Bush's use of the attacks, saying the war in Iraq is important both for stabilizing the Middle East and for defeating the Islamic militants who attacked that day.

"We would not have invaded Iraq without 9/11," King said after the speech. "I think it's important for the president to remind people of 9/11 especially for people further away from New York and further away from the Pentagon. Americans do tend to put 9/11 in the backs of their minds."
Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.