Friday January 12 2007
Bush Speaks and Base Is Subdued
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
FORT BENNING, Ga., Jan. 11 President Bush came to this Georgia military base looking for a friendly audience to sell his new Iraq strategy. But his lunchtime talk received a restrained response from soldiers who clapped politely but showed little of the wild enthusiasm that they ordinarily shower on the commander in chief.
President Bush watched a demonstration of a drop tower used in airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times).
Under the new plan, more than 20,000 additional troops will be sent to Iraq, some from Fort Benning who learned Thursday that they would go earlier than expected. But instead of centering his address on the soldiers’ situation, Mr. Bush seemed to be aiming his talk at ordinary Americans and members of Congress who are skeptical of his proposal.
Mr. Bush acknowledged, as he did in his televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, that he had miscalculated the number of troops necessary to execute the military’s “clear, hold and build” strategy of securing Baghdad neighborhoods and tamping down sectarian violence.
“What’s new about this plan is there will be enough troops to clear, build and hold, and that our troops will be able to move alongside the Iraqis without political interference, and that’s very important,” the president said. He added, “This is something different that enables the military folks to predict that we will succeed in helping quell sectarian violence in Baghdad.”
Mr. Bush pledged that the strategy would produce a return to peaceful society in Baghdad, but said it would take time. “The new strategy is not going to yield immediate results, it’s going to take a while,” he said, adding, “Yet over time, we can expect to see positive results.”
The president was not specific about how long he meant. But a senior official at the National Security Council who helped develop the policy said the administration’s target is significant improvement in a year.
“By the end of this year,” this official said, “Baghdad’s got to look significantly different. Decisive change in Baghdad is the focus.”
Senior aides to Mr. Bush acknowledge that he is taking a risk in putting his faith in the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Mr. Bush said Thursday that he had been heartened this week by Iraqi and American forces fighting together to root out terrorists on Haifa Street in Baghdad, and that he also was encouraged by Mr. Maliki’s recent statements that sectarian violence would not be tolerated.
“The prime minister and I have had some plain talking,” the president said. “I have made it clear that the patience of the American people is not unlimited.”
As Mr. Bush spoke here, two members of his cabinet, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, were testifying about the plan on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are promising a vote on the plan and may go so far as to place limits on financing for the war. Traveling with Mr. Bush to Fort Benning, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, warned that if Democrats were going to criticize, they must come up with something better.
“Those who have decided to judge this plan before it has a chance to work have a greater responsibility to propose something that will work,” Mr. Bartlett said. “We’ve yet to see that from the Democrats.”
Soldiers from Fort Benning have already contributed heavily to the Iraq war effort. Members of the Third Infantry Division, Third Brigade, have served two tours in Iraq, and some were notified Thursday that they would serve a third starting in mid-March, about two months ahead of schedule, as a result of the president’s plan.
In his speech, Mr. Bush took note of that, saying, “I appreciate the sacrifices our troops are willing to make.” But he did not dwell on sacrifice; a senior White House official said the president did not want that to be the major theme of his talk.
It was difficult to know how the soldiers felt about returning to the war zone, or the president’s new Iraq plan. Though Mr. Bush’s lunch was open to the press, the base commander, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, would not let the troops in attendance talk to reporters. His spokeswoman said the commander wanted “the focus to be on the president.”