WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday will address the nation from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in the first of several speeches officials say is designed to reassure the public that the United States has a "plan for victory" in Iraq.
Rhetoric over U.S. involvement in Iraq has escalated to fever pitch over the past few weeks, leading to the lowest poll ratings for the president since he took office. Bush and other administration officials got a head start Tuesday laying out the White House's measures for success.
Watch live streaming video of President Bush's speech at 9:45 a.m. EST on FOXNews.com, or tune to FOX News Channel.
"The whole objective is to achieve a victory against the terrorists. The terrorists have made it very clear that Iraq is a central front on the War on Terror. ... And a victory in Iraq will deny the terrorists their stated goal," Bush told reporters while visiting the U.S.-Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
"Victory is the primary objective. We've sacrificed a lot. We've had, you know, some of the finest Americans die in Iraq, and one thing we're not going to do is let them die in vain," he said.
Leaving Iraq before the mission is complete would allow terrorists to prevail and put the United States "at still greater risk," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Let's be clear: U.S. forces are in Iraq to help the Iraqis fight the terrorists there, so we don't have to fight them here in the United States. ... Quitting is not an exit strategy. It would be a formula for putting the American people at greater risk. It would be an invitation for more terrorist violence," Rumsfeld said.
The American public's concern about troops in Iraq has heightened as reports have increased on the use of improvised explosive devices on U.S. forces. More than 2,100 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, leading to a fight in Washington about whether to send more troops or to draw down the numbers quickly in advance of a full pullout.
That fight grew more intense earlier this month when Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., known as one of the more hawkish Democrats on Capitol Hill, called for timed military withdrawal from the country. That led to a Senate vote for quarterly reports from the administration about progress in Iraq. The House also rejected a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal.
But critics of the administration say if the United States plans to keep its troops in Iraq, the president better explain why.
"It's easy to sloganize and say everything's going well, but I think those speeches have left a very big gap with the American people — what they hear from the president and what they read every day," Sen. Jack Reed, D-N.H., said of the president's speeches.
"We herald any progress that goes on in Iraq, but 2,108 lives later, three years later, and to say simply 'stay the course' is not acceptable to the American people. ... We need real benchmarks to determine what's the progress of success," Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told FOX News.
"We need an Iraqi army that is self-sufficient so we can ultimately bring our soldiers home. ... We need a success strategy that defines how many Iraqi troops we need, what level of experience they need to have, how is their supply and logistics chain going to exist so we can ultimately determine when our troops to come home," Menendez said.
The administration appears to be providing some quantifiable measures. In a preview of the president's speech, the defense secretary listed accomplishments made by the Iraqi security forces. He said 95 battalions, about 50,000 of the 212,000 Iraqi force, are trained and equipped in the fight against terrorists.
Rumsfeld also said Iraqi forces control 87 square miles of Baghdad, one province and 450 square miles of territory in other provinces. The Iraqi army has seven division and 31 brigade headquarters in operation; Iraqis operate 29 military bases.
Rumsfeld said the president's strategy is to "succeed in passing responsibility to the Iraqi people and in helping them to further develop the capabilities needed to assume that responsibility."
"The strategy is working, and we should stick to it," Rumsfeld said.
In an opinion piece welcomed by the White House, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said progress is being made politically, economically and militarily.
"I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. More work needs to be done, of course, but the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed transformation ... unless the great American military that has given them and us this unexpected opportunity is prematurely withdrawn," Lieberman wrote in a piece for The Wall Street Journal following a Thanksgiving visit to Iraq.
In the article, Lieberman said withdrawal would be too risky for both the United States and Iraq. He said Bush needs to stress to America that the strategy he is pursuing has a definable outcome.
"I'd like to hear the president tomorrow restate our goals and begin to let the American people know that we have a plan. And as I found out last week: I believe the plan is working," Lieberman told reporters on Tuesday.
The White House is calling the president's remarks an important speech, and the first in a series to be given before the Dec. 15 election in Iraq about "the plan for victory."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday's speech will argue against timetables and fast withdrawal and rather use condition-based guidelines determined by military commanders for bringing U.S. troops home.
Borrowing from a newly declassified document, McClellan said the president will also offer some specifics to "give the American people a sense of our clear strategy and how to go about achieving victory" and talk about how troops are constantly adapting their tactics.
Convincing the Masses
Despite the White House's calls for staying the course, public opinion of the president's job approval is at an all time low.
In a July 26-27 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 47 percent of Americans approved of Bush's overall job performance; 44 percent disapproved. In an Aug. 30-31 poll — Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29 — his approval rating had dipped two points to 45 percent; two weeks later it dipped further to 41 percent.
In the most recent FOX News poll, taken as calls for withdrawal have heated up, Bush hit his all-time low of 36 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval. His all-time high was in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent action in Afghanistan, when he reached 88 percent approval and 7 percent disapproval in a Nov. 14-15, 2001, poll.
Debate over Iraq shows no signs of weakening. Just this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson criticized Bush for being "too aloof" from post-war planning. Democratic lawmakers are eyeing 2006 as they watch the president's numbers plummet ahead of midterm elections.
"The American public are increasingly disenchanted with policies in Iraq and growing distrustful of the president's approach, and the president has to, tomorrow, close this growing credibility gap with a detailed explanation of the plan for the future in Iraq. It has to, I think, be an honest assessment, not only pointing out successes, but also pointing out pitfalls, too," Reed said.
Democratic strategist Rich Masters told FOX News that he agreed that some progress is being made, but the administration hasn't done enough to move quickly in Iraq.
"Right now we still have a desperate few who are ready to take over. Now, make no mistake, we are making some incremental progress in Iraq, but the problem is the way this administration ran this war from the very get go: Undermanned and underutilized. ... and they went in, and it's taken us significantly longer — three years ... . We've got a long way to go," Masters said.
But Republican strategist Terry Holt told FOX News that the president's strategy has been working.
"What the president's been doing very methodically and patiently over the last few years is beginning to pay big dividends," Holt said. "The president's looking forward to the future, and the plan is for democracy and for a stable Iraq that doesn’t present a threat to our country."
Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, a FOX News contributor, said Tuesday that Bush's best political move is to win the war. He said he's concerned that the pullout rhetoric could discourage Iraqis from beefing up their military.
"If we're winning the war in Iraq a year from now, he will help the Republicans. ... The best thing he can do for Republicans is be an effective commander in chief," Kristol told FOX News.
"If it looks like we're trying to get out and are eager to get out, the Iraqis won't commit to fight the terrorists. ... I think the threat isn't that we look too overbearing in Iraq. The threat is that we look too eager to get out. ... American people don’t care whether there are 130,000 troops or 110,000 troops in Iraq. They care about winning," Kristol said.
McClellan said expectations are high that 2006 conditions will allow for the reduction in U.S. troop presence but that the president will not determine troop levels based on the political discourse in America.
Bush said Tuesday he would rely on his ground commanders to decide troop levels.
"I'm interested in winning. I want to defeat the terrorists and I want our troops to come home. But I don't want them to come home without having achieved victory and we've got a strategy for victory," Bush said.
Lieberman said the coming elections for a full-term Iraqi government as well as Iraqi polls showing greater confidence in the new government are signs that U.S. efforts are working. He took aim at both Republicans and Democrats who are criticizing administration efforts.
"I am disappointed by Democrats who are more focused on how President Bush took America in to the war in Iraq almost three years ago, and by Republicans who are more worried about whether the war will bring them down in November's elections," the senator wrote.
Military officials said maintaining troop levels is important to stability in Iraq.
"Far and away, we have the upper hand militarily if we have the continued national and political will to continue to fight, which me must, by the way," Ret. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen Burton Moore told FOX News.
Former Deputy Assistant Army Secretary Van Hipp told FOX News that if the election goes well, it could mean troop reductions.
"I would not be surprised to see the president say tomorrow night that after successful, permanent elections on Dec. 15, that we're going to reduce the force from 156,000 and have a withdrawal of 21,000 forces, and get us back down to that base force of 135 [thousand[," Hipp said.
"This is a key battle ground in the War on Terrorism, and we've got to stay the course, and we've got to finish this job," he said.
FOX News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.