DAYTON, Ohio – President Bush on Thursday defended the slow pace of progress in Iraq, asserting "it is not foot-dragging" as Iraqi politicians try to reach agreement on political, security and economic goals.
Bush derided calls from Congress for troop withdrawals or deadlines so that the military could focus more on the anti-terror battle elsewhere. "This argument makes no sense," he said.
Bush offered his assessment of the war in a speech before a military audience of more than 1,000 people at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton.
Within weeks, Bush is expected to endorse the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Petraeus has proposed a pause in troop cutbacks to assess the impact of having withdrawn five combat brigades since December. He has argued that it would be reckless to shrink the American force so rapidly that the gains achieved over the past year are compromised or lost entirely.
Bush suggested that Iraqi officials were able to make more progress than the U.S. Congress.
"They got their budget passed," the president said. "Sometimes it takes our Congress awhile to get its budget passed.
"Nevertheless some members of Congress decided the best way to encourage progress in Baghdad was to criticize and threaten Iraq's leaders while they're trying to work out their differences," Bush said.
"But hectoring was not what the Iraqi leaders needed," he said. "What they needed was security. And that is what the surge has provided."
Bush asked critics of Iraq's political progress to consider the enormity of the task.
"They're trying to build a modern democracy on the rubble of three decades of tyranny, in a region of the world that has been hostile to freedom. And they're doing it while under assault from one of history's most brutal terrorist networks," Bush said. "When it takes time for Iraqis to reach agreement, it is not foot-dragging, as one senator described it during Congress' two-week Easter recess. It is a revolutionary undertaking that requires great courage."
Bush was referring to comments made in a television interview last weekend by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. He told CNN on Sunday that there has been too much "foot-dragging on key governance questions in Iraq" and that putting off troop withdrawals would only exacerbate it.
The president pointedly took on the Democratic case for troop withdrawals.
"No matter what shortcomings these critics diagnose, their prescription is always the same: retreat," Bush said. "They claim that our strategic interest is elsewhere and if we would just get out of Iraq, we could focus on the battles that really matter."
But, he countered, "If America's strategic interests are not in Iraq, the convergence point for the twin threats of al-Qaida and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden's deputy has called the place for the greatest battle, the country at the heart of the most volatile region on earth, then where are they?"