From the president, nice words but nothing new

Bush distances himself from the smearing of Jack Murtha but vows to stay the course in Iraq.

Published November 21, 2005 1:53PM (EST)

We clicked over to the White House Web site this morning to read the transcript of the president's latest comments on Iraq, but this headline caught our eyes first: "Cast Your Vote for the 2005 National Thanksgiving Turkey."

Oh, where to begin?

Fifty-four percent of the public thinks it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq. Sixty percent say the war hasn't been worth the cost. And while the country is perhaps more divided over what should happen next in Iraq -- the truth is, the Bush administration's policies have left the United States with no good options -- the White House seems to be realizing that the president can't dismiss calls for a prompt troop withdrawal by simply smearing the people who are making them.

In a brief session with reporters in Beijing Sunday, George W. Bush tried to put some distance between himself and the attacks on Rep. Jack Murtha. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Democrat -- a man who served in Vietnam as part of his 37-year career in the Marine Corps -- said that he thinks it's time for the troops to come home from Iraq. By Friday morning, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who didn't serve in the military, was equating Murtha with Michael Moore and saying he wanted to "surrender to terrorists." By Friday night, Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt, who didn't serve in the military, either, suggested that Murtha was a "coward" rather than a real Marine.

Sunday in Beijing, the president was making sure that his fingerprints weren't on any such smears. Bush called Murtha "a fine man, a good man, who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman." He said Murtha is a "strong supporter of the United States military," and he said he knew that Murtha had reached his decision about the future of the troops "in a careful and thoughtful way."

Bush may get some pundit praise for toning down the attacks, but it's clear that the nice words don't change anything. Shortly after Bush spoke, Donald Rumsfeld made the rounds of the Sunday talkers in Washington and kept up the attack by suggesting that Murtha's words had undercut the troops in Iraq and provided hope to the enemy. And Bush himself made it perfectly clear in Beijing that he won't be swayed by Murtha or anyone else. Leaving Iraq "prematurely" would have "terrible consequences for our own security and for the Iraqi people," Bush said. "And that's not going to happen so long as I'm the president."

Ten more U.S. soldiers died over the weekend in Iraq, bringing the death toll close to the 2,100 mark. Another dozen will probably die before Thanksgiving.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War John Murtha D-pa. Middle East