Bush, on bended knee but firing back

The president comes off as contrite even as he marginalizes his critics. And then there's Cheney.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 19, 2005 2:16PM (EST)

The papers are filled this morning with talk of the "humble" George W. Bush who went before the nation Sunday and all but begged Americans to support his war in Iraq. To be sure, there was some sense of humility in the president's speech: He said that he understands that the war is "controversial"; he said that some of his decisions have led to "terrible loss"; and he said that he needs the patience of the American people. "Do not give in to despair," he said. "And do not give up on this fight for freedom."

But even in his moment of something like contrition, the president managed to make time for minimizing his errors and marginalizing his critics. "We have learned from our experiences," Bush said, avoiding the word that starts with "M" and usually follows the phrase, "We have learned from our ..." He dismissed those who question the war as advocates of "defeatism," which he said "may have its partisan uses" but is "not justified by the facts." And when he spoke directly to those who believe that the troops should come home as soon as possible, he did so in a way that seemed to minimize the breadth of the doubt he faces. Bush said he wanted to speak "to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt." What Bush didn't acknowledge -- what his words seemed to mask -- is that a lot of people who did support Bush's decision to send troops to Iraq in 2002 believe that both the United States and Iraq would be better off if those troops came home soon.

And then there was Dick Cheney. As the president was preparing for his bended-knee act in the Oval Office, the vice president was making an unannounced tour of Iraq, where he was trumpeting the usual "everything's coming up roses" line. When a Marine told Cheney that troops on the ground "don't see much as far as gains," the vice president set him straight: "Iraq's looking good," he said. "We've turned the corner. I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq."

During a speech at the Al-Asad Air Base, Cheney was all 9/11, all the time. And in an interview for "Nightline," Cheney made it clear that he wasn't going to be admitting to any "experiences" that might call for a change of course in Iraq. Asked by ABC's Terry Moran to explain how or why he "got it wrong" when he predicted, on the eve of the war, that American troops would be "greeted as liberators," Cheney shot back: "I don't think I got it wrong. I think the vast majority of the Iraqi people are grateful for what the U.S. did. I think they believe overwhelmingly that they're better off today than they were when Saddam Hussein ruled."

Tim Grieve

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

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room