Bush, national security team try to agree on Iraq message

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his national security team may be singing from the same songbook on their "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" campaign blitz. They're just not necessarily always on the same page.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are making a concentrated push to clarify the administration's goals and game plan. The hope is to rebuild public support ahead of elections Dec. 15 in Iraq for a permanent government.

Bush gave a major speech on Iraq last week at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., plans one this week and two more the following week. Rumsfeld gives a speech on Monday. Cheney plans to address troops returning from Iraq to Fort Drum, N.Y., on Tuesday.

"They're trying to get on a common message, and it's basically coming through. But it took them a long time to get to this message," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Among some of the less-than-resonant notes sounded in recent days by Bush's war cabinet:

* Rice told interviewers late last month that the U.S. would not need to maintain current troop levels in Iraq "very much longer." Rumsfeld told radio talk show host Sean Hannity that the war would wind down over the next few years. But Bush, in his Naval Academy speech, gave no sense of a departure date. That, he said, would be decided by commanders on the ground and not "politicians in Washington."

* Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference last Tuesday that he would no longer use the word "insurgents," instead substituting "enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government." But Bush used insurgents the next day at the Naval Academy and it appeared 14 times in a 35-page accompanying document issued by the White House.

* Bush, beginning in Asia late last month, softened his criticism of Democrats who voted for his war resolution in October 2002 and are now among his harshest critics. Yet Cheney later denounced such lawmakers as "dishonest and reprehensible" and "corrupt and shameless." Democrats said Cheney apparently did not get the tone-down memo.

Cheney, who has said he has no presidential ambitions, has little to lose in playing the heavy; his public approval ratings are even lower than Bush's.

Cheney is popular with the party's conservative base. "Cheney has become the junkyard dog" on Iraq, said Stephen Hess, a political analyst who was a speechwriter in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses. "He's speaking out to hold the president's base, and he's not giving any quarter."

The campaign is an attempt to respond to increasing pressure from members of Bush's own party in Congress and criticism that the administration lacked specific benchmarks for lowering the U.S. presence in Iraq. There are now 158,000 American troops in Iraq.

It is too soon to tell whether the push is working.

When he can, Bush uses military audiences as a backdrop for his speeches. Cheers and shouts are abundant, protests essentially nonexistent, access severely limited.

In addition to the Naval Academy, Bush has spoken on Iraq on air bases in Alaska and South Korea and at a National Guard installation in Pennsylvania.

Cheney will address the Army's 42nd Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Tuesday.

Democrats have accused the president of using the military as props, as he did in his "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard an aircraft carrier in May 2003. But his defenders say that is one of any president's prerogatives.

"The president talks about the war on terrorism in many different formats, but he is the commander in chief, we are a nation at war, and no one has more invested in this war than our men and women in uniform," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

There could be a downside, suggested Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis and a specialist on presidential rhetoric.

"Going back again and again to the troops is also a constant reminder to Americans of just who is taking the risks in Iraq. I don't think it's playing particularly well," Fields said.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

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