WASHINGTON – President Bush may be making his last, best case for the war in Iraq, but to growing ranks of skeptics it’s the same old argument.

Heading into midterm elections in two weeks with his party’s control of Congress at stake, the president faced a news conference Wednesday with a humble acknowledgment that “I owe an explanation to the American people.”

He admitted miscalculations in the invasion of Iraq, and disappointments after more than three years there, and offered a rare acknowledgment of the American body count in this, the deadliest month for U.S. forces in a year.

However, Bush’s explanation that Iraq is central to a broader war against terrorism, and that a withdrawal from Iraq would invite greater danger at home, remained unchanged from the “stay the course” argument that he had made for months.

What has changed, along with the president’s new rhetoric about “flexibility” in adapting to the changing dynamics of the war, is a political environment in which Republicans once confident of long-term dominance in Washington now fear loss of power.

With leaders within his own Republican Party increasingly speaking of alternative courses for the war – and Democrats vowing that a bipartisan consensus for change is coming should they gain control in Congress on Nov. 7 – the president in effect is making a last-ditch argument for giving him and the GOP a chance to prove the war is winnable.

Asked who should be held accountable for failures in the war, Bush pointed to himself.

“The ultimate accountability . . . rests with me,” he said in an East Room news conference, itself a rarity.

“That’s the ultimate,” Bush said. “You’re asking about accountability . . . Rests right here. It’s what the 2004 campaign was about . . . If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president.”

While acknowledging misjudgments – including bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and “overestimating” the ability of Iraqis to maintain “essential services” afterward – he also issued a somber report in terms that even the military tries to avoid: “This month, we’ve lost 93 American service members in Iraq, the most since October of 2005.”

Yet Bush maintained that Iraq has not fallen into “full-scale” civil war and he pledged that American soldiers will not sit in the “crossfire” of such a conflict.

He also insisted that the war is winnable. “Absolutely, we’re winning,” said Bush, citing al-Qaida operatives and a “mastermind” of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, who now await trial by U.S. military tribunals.

“I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq,” the president said. “I’m not satisfied, either . . . But we cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in this war.”

Abandoning public appeals to “stay the course,” once intended as a demonstration of his resolve for victory, the president now is attempting to underscore an openness to changing tactics. “As the enemy shifts tactics, we are shifting our tactics as well,” he said. “Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting our tactics to stay ahead of our enemies.”

But analysts say that nothing really has changed in the Bush administration’s strategy of supporting a government that appears unable to manage the warring factions of a riven country.

“There was no change in strategy that was at all apparent in this speech,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Bush’s news conference.

“The American people want to hear that he understands (mistakes were made),” he said. “Otherwise they will think he’s loony. But they want to hear not only the mistakes that were made, but “Here is how we are going to fix them.’ It’s that part of the story that he didn’t give.”

Alternatives

Already, Republican elders such as Jim Baker, co-chairman of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group commissioned by Congress and expected to issue a report after Election Day, speak of alternatives to staying the course and what the president likes to call the “cut and run” policies of war critics.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., says several Republicans stand ready to step forward and forge a “bipartisan consensus for change in the Iraq policy” should Democrats make significant gains Nov. 7. “Iraq is about at the breaking point here, and we don’t have much time . . . to make some very important decisions to salvage the situation,” said Biden, declining to name Republicans ready to negotiate. “I promise you, they will become obvious after Nov. 7.”

Gelb says: “That is one of the biggest stories just beneath the surface now . . . I am honorbound not to discuss names . . . There are six to eight or 10 of the key Republicans who are going to come out for talking about a different approach.”

Political challenge

The challenge for Bush, in the remaining time of the midterm campaign, is averting any Democratic takeover of either House or Senate. And, after acknowledging disappointments in Iraq, his mood at the news conference shifted to undaunted optimism when he was asked about the election. Too many people in Washington have declared the contest already finished, Bush warned.

“We’ve got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said Wednesday. “They’ve got them measuring their drapes . . . They just haven’t scored the touchdown. You know, there’s a lot of time left.”

Yet, with his own admissions about setbacks in Iraq, and with a determination of Democratic opponents and perhaps Republican leaders alike to plot a new course, there may be little time left for the war the way that Bush is waging it.



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH

AP-NY-10-25-06 1853EDT


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