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Bush Makes Better Case for Iraq War, But Needs Troops

President Bush has made an important shift as he tries to bolster public support for the Iraq war, moving from idealism to a hard national security argument. He needs to stress the new message more. [IMGCAP(1)]

Unpopular though the idea may be, he may also have to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in order to have any hope of defeating the insurgency.

And, for sure, he has to get the Pentagon to stop talking about drawing down U.S. troop levels next year and get with Bush’s own program: The United States stays until Iraq is secure.

Bush’s new public case for Iraq was unveiled Aug. 24 in Idaho and repeated in his V-J Day anniversary speech six days later in San Diego.

Both speeches contained the familiar assertions that Iraq is a key front in the war on terrorism and that the best way to fight terrorism is to bring democracy to that country and the rest of the Middle East.

In the past, those arguments — plus optimistic reports on training of Iraqi security forces and political progress — have failed to arrest a sharp drop-off in public support for the war.

As a writer for National Review Online, Andrew C. McCarthy correctly puts it: “The American people did not go to war for the goal of advancing freedom. … [They] went to war to protect the national security of the United States from current and gathering threats which they understood after Sept. 11, 2001, could no longer responsibly be waited out.

“What the American people care about is defeating militant Islam. … They know that leaving when terrorism runs rampant would be a victory for militant Islam. It would encourage our enemies toward more terrorism.”

That’s essentially the case Bush made in the recent speeches, emphasizing the stakes involved for the United States and what will happen if the insurgency succeeds in Iraq.

“During the last few decades, the terrorists grew to believe that if they hit America hard, as in Lebanon and Somalia, America would retreat and back down,” he said in Idaho.

“Before Sept. 11, Osama Bin Laden said that an attack could make America run in less than 24 hours. So now they are trying to break our will with acts of violence. They’ll kill women and children, knowing that the images of their brutality will horrify civilized people.”

He should have added, “And they and the followers of Saddam Hussein are killing American soldiers in hopes that the death toll will undermine support for the war here at home.”

But he did say, “Their goal is to force us to retreat. See, they have a strategy. They want us to retreat so they can topple governments in the Middle East and turn that region into a safe haven for terrorism.”

In San Diego, he said that “if Zarqawi and Bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks. They’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions, they could recruit more terrorists by claiming a historic victory over the United States and our coalition.”

Bush might have added — and should add in future speeches — that “if the United States is driven out of Iraq, our leadership role in the world will be sorely shaken. Adversaries will be emboldened. Friends will be discouraged. Our ability to persuade fence-sitters will be impaired on a broad range of issues.”

It’s doubtful that the new message has taken hold in the public’s mind yet, but polls indicate that public disapproval of the war and Bush’s policy in Iraq may have bottomed out.

Despite increased U.S. casualties and the massive publicity garnered by war protester Cindy Sheehan, the latest Gallup poll shows that support for her position — an immediate U.S. pullout — has fallen from 33 percent to 26 percent.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that only 13 percent hold that position and that a majority of 56 percent supports increasing U.S. forces (21 percent) or keeping current levels (35 percent).

Support for Bush could get a boost if Iraqi voters approve the country’s new constitution Oct. 15, but it’s likely to be as temporary as it was after the Jan. 30 elections.

What Bush policy needs is progress in defeating the insurgency — and to get that, he may well need to increase U.S. forces.

A Bush supporter I trust who has made multiple visits to Iraq is convinced that Iraqi security forces are unlikely to be able to contain the insurgency for the foreseeable future and, as matters now stand, the United States is losing ground to the insurgents.

This official says that combined U.S. and Iraqi forces are capable of driving insurgents out of cities such as Fallujah or Ramadi, but don’t have the manpower to hold them — so Saddamists and jihadists return and kill or intimidate those who “collaborated” with us.

This point of view has been compellingly confirmed on the ground by Knight-Ridder correspondent Tom Lasseter, who has been embedded with U.S. Marines and Army units in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

On Aug. 25, Lasseter reported that “in Fallujah, a city that Marines and soldiers retook from insurgents last November in the heaviest urban combat since Vietnam, [insurgent] fighters have begun to return and renew their intimidation campaign.”

He quoted one Marine colonel as saying, “I don’t think of this in terms of winning” and another as saying, “if you go into an area and you don’t stay in that area, the insurgents will return and intimidate the local population.”

Lasseter quoted one platoon commander who said, “There’s no way I can control this area with the men I have.” American officers said it would take “years of preparation” for Iraqi forces to take over.

But there’s total confusion, based on statements from various top commanders, about whether American troop levels will increase, decrease or stay the same. For a time, the Pentagon even tried to abandon Bush’s declaration of a “global war on terror” and replace it with “global struggle against violent extremism.”

Bush put the kibosh on that. He continues to make it clear that America is at war. What he must do now is make it unmistakable to the American people what the stakes of the war are and provide adequate forces to win it.