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Monday, May 24, 2004

President to Speak Tonight

Bush to talk up his plans for Iraq

By Susan Page, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — An embattled President Bush, his support imperiled at home and abroad, launches a five-week campaign Monday intended to reassure Americans that he has an effective plan for Iraq and persuade foreign leaders to do more to help it succeed.

At a time the White House would rather be bragging about good news on job growth and the economy, Bush will use speeches, international summits and news interviews to detail his plans for turning over Iraq's rule to an interim government on June 30 and describe the U.S. role in Iraq after that.

White House aides say Bush won't propose a change in course or offer a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces. He'll describe the steps to be taken next and defend the reasons for having gone to war in the first place.

Monday night's audience is guaranteed to be friendly: students and faculty at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

But Bush will get a more skeptical reception when he attends summits with foreign leaders, including some harsh critics of the war. The G8 summit of major industrialized powers at Sea Island, Ga., a European Union summit in Ireland and a meeting of NATO leaders in Turkey that ends the day before power is to be transferred are likely to be dominated by the topic of Iraq. One point of confrontation is a proposal by France and Germany that a new U.N. resolution include a deadline for U.S. and other foreign forces to leave.

ON THE AGENDA
Monday: Address at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Saturday: Dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

June 2: Commencement address, Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs

June 5-6: Meeting with French President Jacques Chiraq and commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day in France

June 10: G8 summit at Sea Island, Ga.

June 26: European Union summit in Dublin, Ireland

June 28-29: NATO summit in Istanbul

June 30: Scheduled transfer of power in Iraq to an interim government

Source: USA TODAY research


The war in Iraq — the deadliest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War — is even likely to color ceremonies that otherwise would be celebrations: the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington on Saturday and the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy in two weeks.

"President Bush has to pull his chestnuts out of the fire" at a time he looks weak and his competence is being questioned, says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. He calls Bush's "pro-active" communications strategy bold for a president who has rarely used the bully pulpit in such a concerted way. "If he pulls it off, it will give him a chance to turn things around," Greenstein says.

The countdown to the transfer of power will prompt a sort of long-distance debate between Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. With a speech in Seattle on Thursday, Kerry begins more than a week of events focused on national security issues, including Iraq.

"John Kerry will talk about how to make America stronger at home and more respected abroad," spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter says. That will include a critique of Bush's leadership. "The president has not used the power of his office to strengthen our alliances or to broaden support for the war in Iraq," Cutter says.

Among the developments in recent days that challenge Bush:

•New embarrassments in Iraq. In the latest incident, Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile leader once so favored by the White House that he was seated behind Laura Bush at the State of the Union address this year, denied on Sunday allegations that he gave U.S. secrets to Iran. His headquarters in Baghdad was raided and searched last week.

Courts-martial and congressional investigations continue in connection with the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal.

•Falling support among Americans. Bush's approval rating on handling Iraq fell to 41% in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken May 7-9. That is the lowest of his presidency, down 20 points from the beginning of the year. For the first time, a majority, 54%, said the war in Iraq wasn't "worth it." The questions had a margin of error of +/{ndash}5 percentage points.

•Increasing criticism from Republicans. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., one of the most measured voices in Congress, in a commencement address at Tufts University in Massachusetts faulted the administration's "go it alone" approach to foreign policy. He called on Bush to "articulate precisely what is going to happen as much as they can, day by day, as opposed to a generalization." He and others have expressed concern about a lack of information about how the transfer of power will work.

Bush went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to rally Republican members on Iraq, but there was grumbling afterward when he didn't take questions. Meanwhile, Democrats have become increasingly caustic. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Bush's actions in Iraq "demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience."

In his speech at 8 Monday night, Bush will begin to flesh out what's next, White House spokesman Jimmy Orr says.

"We're entering a critical phase," he says. "The president will discuss the steps and strategy ahead on a number of fronts: the security front, the sovereignty front, the diplomacy front, the humanitarian and civil infrastructure front — all in the context of keeping Iraq on a path toward democracy."

Aides say Bush hopes to dispel the impression that the administration doesn't have a plan to succeed in Iraq.

They say he also wants to make sure Americans understand a hard fact: The turnover of sovereignty in June won't mean the violence there will end — or that U.S. forces will be home soon.

Contributing: Judy Keen

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