Bush Accentuates the Positive in War Speeches

President Bush has replaced talk of broad victory with descriptions of limited progress. During a series of speeches this week designed to reverse falling public support, he tries to balance his optimistic message that the mission can succeed with news accounts of a growing insurgency.

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ROBERT SIEGEL: This week President Bush is trying to reverse falling public support for the war in Iraq. He's been giving speeches, taking questions from reporters at the White House press conference, from the public in Cleveland and Wheeling.

In making his case, he is balancing a recognition of the difficulties the U.S. confronts in Iraq with the optimistic message that the mission will succeed. This week, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, one particular word emerged as a primary element of the White House effort.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Progress, that's what the president says he is seeing in Iraq, and that's what he wants the American public to see. It's a word he kept coming back to in his prepared statement at the start of his news conference earlier this week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: For every act of violence there is encouraging progress in Iraq that's had to capture on the evening news.

GONYEA: That was three lines into his remarks. Moments later, came this.

President BUSH: Yet we're making progress and that's important for the American people to understand.

GONYEA: And the very next line.

President BUSH: We're making progress because we've got a strategy for victory. And we're making progress because the men and women of the United States Military are showing magnificent courage, and they're making important…

GONYEA: And so it went. It does seem part of an effort by the president to speak more realistically about the war while at the same time remaining positive.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been tracking the state of the Iraq War since it began. He says the president's repeated use of the word progress is clearly by design.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institute): So it's a word that's not only more amorphous, but frankly somewhat beyond rebuke or beyond repudiation on the part of critics. And it's almost impossible to say that there's no progress in Iraq in specific areas.

GONYEA: When the president cites progress these days, it's usually to describe an increase in the number and capabilities of Iraqi security forces. Or it's about Iraqis voting and the ongoing steps being taken for establishing a permanent Democratic Iraqi government.

Still, even at his most emphatic, the president's statements lately are not big declarations of imminent victory as much as they are reassurance to a worried public. Here's Mr. Bush at an event with military families in Wheeling, West Virginia yesterday.

(APPLAUSE)

President BUSH: I can't ask this good Marine to go into harm's way if I didn't believe, one, we were going to succeed, and two, it's necessary for the security of the United States.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Michael O'Hanlon points out that the progress the president highlights is offset by problems elsewhere in Iraq.

Mr. O'HANLON: The economy has really been staying flat now for many months. And there are big problems like high unemployment that are simply not getting better. The violence has not really gotten better. And then finally, on the politics front, which has been the most hopeful area overall in 2005, we're now seeing great divisions among the major Iraqi groups who could not agree to a government.

GONYEA: O'Hanlon's description of things is reflected in polls showing that well over half of Americans say they are not confident that the war will come to a successful conclusion. Mr. Bush is trying to talk to those very people with statements like this one in West Virginia yesterday.

President BUSH: Now the fundamental question is can we win in Iraq? And that's what I want to talk about.

GONYEA: Late last year, the president embarked on a similar campaign to shore up support on Iraq. Then, too, he was more candid than previously about difficulties in the war. The strategy worked to some degree with polls showing some improvement for the president. But those gains evaporated as violence in Iraq escalated this year.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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