Bush: Give Iraq plan a chance

The president spoke of dire consequences if the U.S. fails in Iraq.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Bush implored lawmakers and the nation Tuesday night to give him one more chance to win the war in Iraq and avoid the "nightmare scenario" of defeat while presenting a domestic agenda intended to find common cause with the new Democratic Congress on issues such as energy and immigration.

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Politically wounded but rhetorically unbowed, Bush gave no ground on his decision to dispatch 21,500 more troops to Iraq despite a bipartisan cascade of criticism. Addressing for the first time a Congress controlled by the other party, Bush challenged Democrats "to show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory" and warned that the consequences of failure in Iraq "would be grievous and far-reaching."

"I respect you and the arguments you have made," Bush told skeptical lawmakers from both parties in his sixth State of the Union address and the fourth since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "We went into this largely united — in our assumptions and in our convictions. And whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure. Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq and I ask you to give it a chance to work."

With new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sitting behind him in a sign of the power shift on Capitol Hill, Bush congratulated Democrats on their victory in the November midterm elections and reached out to them with ideas to expand health care coverage, overhaul immigration laws and improve education performance. In his most ambitious new proposal, he laid out a plan to reduce projected gasoline consumption in the United States by 20 percent over the next 10 years.

"Congress has changed, but our responsibilities have not," Bush said. "We are not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences and achieve big things for the American people."

Yet his approach contrasted with the last two presidents to address an opposition Congress after their parties lost midterm elections. Ronald Reagan conceded mistakes in 1987, as did Bill Clinton in 1995. Although Bush acknowledged two weeks ago that "mistakes have been made" in Iraq, he appeared unchastened Tuesday night and took no responsibility for his party's defeat or errors in office.

Democrats seemed unimpressed by his governing blueprint and signaled that they are in no mood to meet him in the middle. Long before Bush arrived in the House chamber to deliver his remarks, Democratic leaders and allied interest groups rushed out statements blasting his domestic proposals as rehashed ideas, empty rhetoric or flawed concepts that would create other problems. But the divide between president and Congress was most inflamed by his leadership of a war approaching the four-year mark.

"The president took us into this war recklessly," said freshman Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a former Marine who was tapped to give the formal response. Accusing Bush of disregarding warnings by national security experts before invading Iraq, Webb added: "We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable — and predicted — disarray that has followed."

The speech came at the nadir of the Bush presidency to date, with the war grinding on, ever-widening bloodshed and no end in sight, two-thirds of the public turned against him in opinion polls and Democrats controlling both houses of Congress.

Bush devoted about half of his speech Tuesday night to Iraq and foreign policy, largely recapitulating his familiar argument that the war is the central front in a broader battle with terrorists and represents a "generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others." He linked Sunni insurgents, Shiite extremists, al-Qaeda terrorists and Hezbollah militants as arms of a broader radical movement but acknowledged that the mission in Iraq has changed from deposing Saddam Hussein to stopping sectarian violence.

"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in," he said. "Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen, on this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory."

He did not directly debate Democrats' proposals to cut off funding for more troops in Iraq but asked them to let him try his new plan. "In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success," he said. "Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching."

The immediate consequence he envisioned was an Iraqi capital plunged into anarchy. "If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides," Bush said. "We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict."

Bush repeated his call to create a bipartisan advisory council on the battle with terrorists and promoted his administration's plan to permanently expand the U.S. military by 92,000 soldiers and Marines over five years to ease the burdens of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and conducting counterterrorism operations elsewhere.

Sitting in first lady Laura Bush's box during the speech were five decorated Iraq veterans, including Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Barefield, who survived three attacks by makeshift bombs at Baghdad International Airport, repulsed an enemy assault with her M-16 rifle and was awarded the Bronze Star. The White House also invited a domestic hero, Wesley Autrey, a New York construction worker who earned acclaim by jumping onto subway tracks to save a man who had fallen during a seizure.

While they held out little hope of changing minds on Iraq, White House aides said the president's ideas on domestic policy could appeal to Democrats because they were offered in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

The biggest previously undisclosed initiative announced Tuesday was Bush's proposal to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017, largely by stimulating the growth of ethanol and other alternative fuels but also by increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles. Bush has spoken in past State of the Union addresses about his desire to break U.S. dependency on foreign oil and last year declared that "America is addicted to oil," but his speech Tuesday represented his most aggressive effort to curtail the habit.

The president proposed an ambitious campaign to expand the use of ethanol, methanol, hydrogen and other alternative fuels by requiring oil refineries to use 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017, a fivefold increase in the current standard. Aides calculated that doing so would displace about 15 percent of projected gasoline use.

Bush also asked Congress to overhaul the mileage standards for automobiles. Rather than forcing automakers to raise fuel-efficiency standards for new cars across the board, Bush is pushing for flexibility to set different standards for different sizes and makes so manufacturers do not make smaller cars that are less safe. Officials forecast raising fuel standards by 4 percent a year, which would reduce overall gasoline use by 5 percent by 2017.

Bush also called for a major change in the tax code in an effort to make health insurance more affordable. Under his plan, health insurance coverage would be taxable income but families would receive a $15,000 deduction. The plan would make it easier for those who buy health insurance out of pocket while increasing taxes on those who receive employer-funded health care worth more than $15,000 to eventually offset the cost to the Treasury.

Bush used the speech to press Congress to approve his long-standing immigration bill, which couples increased funding for border security with a plan for a temporary-worker program. The plan was blocked by the Republican-led Congress last year, but administration officials hope it may be more appealing to Democrats.

The president repeated his call for a balanced budget in five years while demanding reductions in special-interest projects approved by Congress. He called for reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but it merited only a brief mention, highlighting the difficult path ahead for an idea that dominated the first year of his second term. Bush also urged Congress to reauthorize — and not weaken — his signature No Child Left Behind law.

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