From Bush, more of the same

Despite recent reports that the president would debut a more conciliatory tone on Iraq in Cleveland on Tuesday, his speech offered little new.

By Alex Koppelman

Published July 10, 2007 6:57PM (EDT)

Well, that didn't take long. Despite noises made to the press that President Bush was ready to talk about a post-surge strategy and make rhetorical concessions to some of the Republicans who have recently defected from the president's side on Iraq, and a Washington Post story today saying that Bush would debut his shift at a town hall in Cleveland today, Bush's speech was mostly more of the same.

In fact, rather than striking conciliatory tones, a visibly animated Bush transitioned into his discussion of Iraq by launching into a familiar theme: 9/11.

"I never wanted to be a war president," he said. "Now that I am one, I'm going to do the best I can to protect America. My mind changed on September the 11th, 2001. It changed because I realized the biggest responsibility government has is to protect the American people from further attack and that we must confront dangers before they come to hurt us again. "That's one of the really valuable lessons of September the 11th, is to recognize that oceans can't protect us from an enemy that is ideologically driven and who will use murder as a tool to achieve their political objectives."

From there, much of what Bush had to say was about al-Qaida: What they want out of Iraq, what they're doing there and how they will benefit from a U.S. pull-out. The president also blamed al-Qaida for sparking much of the sectarian violence in Iraq. Discussing the failure of a previous administration strategy based on the training of Iraqi troops, Bush said,

"We didn't get there in 2006, because a thinking enemy -- in this case we believe al-Qaida, the same people that attacked us in America -- incited serious sectarian violence by blowing up a holy religious site of the Shia."

Both Salon's Glenn Greenwald and McClatchy's Mike Drummond have previously noted the administration's recent rhetorical shift, which focuses on al-Qaida, rather than an insurgency, as the enemy and cause of violence in Iraq.

Bush also took pains to repeatedly emphasize that this was the same al-Qaida that had attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

"By the way, al-Qaida is doing most of the spectacular bombings, trying to incite sectarian violence. The same people that attacked us on September 11th is the same that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims," he said. "... The killers who came to America have said, with clarity, we want you out of Iraq so we can have a safe haven from which to attack again."

But Bush is, to some extent, drawing a false connection here. He asserts that the group that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 is the same that is attacking in Iraq now, but that's not totally true. The group operating in Iraq is "al-Qaida in Iraq," sometimes known as "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia." Formerly led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it is a separate organization that only declared its allegiance to the main group in 2004. Tensions between the two have reportedly persisted.

As for the shift that had been promised in recent days, well, there wasn't much of one. Bush repeated several times his call for Congress to hold off on judging the war until Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of forces in Iraq, reports back in September. Some disaffected Republicans have called for Congress and the administration to re-assess the situation now.

Still, Bush did at least take a baby step.

"I'd be glad to discuss different options," he said. "... I feel like we could be in a different position in a while. And that would be to have enough troops there to guard the territorial integrity of that country, enough troops there to make sure that al-Qaida doesn't gain safe haven from which to be able to launch further attacks against the United States of America, enough troops to be embedded and to help train the Iraqis to do their job. But we couldn't get there without additional troops, and now I call on Gen. David Petraeus to come back and tell us whether his strategy is working. And then we can work together on a way forward."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Al-qaida George W. Bush Iraq Middle East War Room