WASHINGTON – President Bush warned Democratic critics of his Iraq policy on Tuesday to watch what they say or risk giving "comfort to our adversaries" and suffering at the ballot box in November. Democrats said Bush should take his own advice.
Ten months are left before congressional elections in which the president's Republican Party could lose its dominance of Capitol Hill; a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found Americans prefer Democratic control over a continued GOP majority by 49 percent to 36 percent. But Bush is wasting no time engaging the battle. In his first speech of 2006 on the road, last week in Chicago, he aggressively challenged Democrats on the economy.
Tuesday's equally sharp message represented an attempt by the president to neutralize Democrats' ability to use Iraq -- where violence is surging in the wake of December parliamentary elections and messy negotiations to form a new coalition government -- as an election-year cudgel against Republicans.
Bush acknowledged deep differences over Iraq among casualty-weary Americans, just 39 percent of whom approve of his handling of the war, according to AP-Ipsos. Without specifically mentioning Democrats, the president urged campaigning politicians to "conduct this debate responsibly."
He said he welcomed "honest critics" who question the way the war is being conducted and the "loyal opposition" that points out what is wrong with his administration's approach.
But he termed irresponsible the "partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil or because of Israel or because we misled the American people," as well as "defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right." With that description, Bush lumped the many Democrats who have accused him of twisting prewar intelligence with the few people, mostly outside the mainstream, who have raised the issues of oil and Israel.
Bush argued that irresponsible discussion harms the morale of troops overseas, emboldens the insurgents they are fighting and sets a bad example for Iraqis trying to establish a democratic government.
"In a free society, there's only one check on political speech and that's the judgment of the American people," the president said to sustained applause from a friendly audience, a gathering of Veterans of Foreign Wars. "So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not say who Bush believes has been irresponsible, other than Democratic Party chief Howard Dean, who said last month that "the idea that we're going to win this war ... is just plain wrong." In the past, the White House has also singled out, among others, Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who became a leading advocate for a quick troop pullout, and other Democrats who say Bush has no strategy.
Democrats said Bush has no business trying to define what sort of talk is acceptable.
"Patriotic Americans will continue to ask the tough questions because our brave men and women in Iraq, their families and the American people deserve to know that their leaders are being held accountable," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said loyalty demands that Democrats differ with Bush on the lack of sufficient body armor for troops and other issues. "From its inception and continuing to this moment, the absence of open and honest debate has been one of the hallmarks of this war," the California Democrat said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who met with Bush recently at the White House, praised the president's recent efforts to gather differing viewpoints and welcomed the call for a more civil dialogue. But Schiff said the process must begin at the White House, which he said "brought the debate down a significant notch" when it attacked Murtha, a respected veteran and longtime hawk.
"Some of the worst culprits in worsening the dialogue on Iraq have come from the White House," said Schiff, who attended Bush's speech. "It's got to be a two-way street."
It was the latest in a series of speeches by Bush aimed at giving Americans more detail and more candor. He predicted more sacrifice and more progress in 2006 in Iraq.
The still-unannounced results of Iraq's Dec. 15 elections are expected to show the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance with a strong lead. The Shiites will, however, will need to form a coalition government with support from Kurdish and Sunni Arab political groups.
Bush said Iraqis must put aside political, religious and sectarian differences to be successful.
Sunnis, he said, "need to learn how to use their influence constructively in a democratic system," while Shiites and Kurds must "protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority."