U.S. Connects Terrorist Threat to Historical Menaces

The administration is on a public-relations offensive in support of the war on terrorism. President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others have all made the comparison between today's terrorist threat and yesterday's Nazi or fascist threat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush begins that series of speeches today on the Iraq war. His first is at the annual American Legion Convention. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke to that same group. During the speech, he likened U.S. efforts in the war on terror and in Iraq to the fight against Nazism and fascism in World War II.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies, when those who warned about a coming crisis - the rise of fascism and Nazism - they were ridiculed or ignored.

MONTAGNE: Secretary Rumsfeld went on to connect that analogy to the present day.

Sec. RUMSFELD: Today, another enemy, a different kind of enemy, has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow, and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history's lessons.

MONTAGNE: That kind of language is part of a larger public relations offensive by the Bush administration to rally lagging support for the war in Iraq.

Joining us to talk about the politics of this language is NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea, who's traveling with the president.

Good morning.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hi there.

MONTAGNE: So, Don, why now?

GONYEA: Well, criticism of the Iraq War across the country is on the rise. We're hearing criticism from prominent Republicans, not just from Democrats. Public doubts continue to grow; recent polls shows that the majority of Americans no longer see Iraq as part of that broader war on terror that the president talks about. Certainly there are election year worries, the mid-term elections.

And it's interesting, too. Secretary Rumsfeld spoke as President Bush was in New Orleans marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But even before the Katrina anniversary was over, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at an airbase in Nebraska.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: In just two-weeks, the calendar will read again September 11th, and our minds will go back to that day five years ago when enemies struck our country with the acts of stealth and murder.

MONTAGNE: Vice President Dick Cheney there. This is an approach that the administration has used before and is using - in a sense reviving this strategy in the last several weeks.

GONYEA: That's right. We saw it during the run up to war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. It was very common for administration officials, even the president, to liken Saddam Hussein to Hitler. There were comparisons between the Bush administration and Winston Churchill, who stood up to Hitler. So President Bush himself went down that path earlier this month when he spoke after that alleged London terror plot was broken up.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.

GONYEA: Use of the word fascism - and then that gets to what Secretary Rumsfeld was saying. That kind of stark language is really coming to the fore in recent days and weeks.

MONTAGNE: With, as you say, more than half of the American public expressing concerns about the war in Iraq, who is the audience for this message? Is it the base?

GONYEA: The administration seems to be reaching out here and trying to fire up its conservative base, certainly by going to the convention today. These veterans have been supportive of the president on foreign policy; he wants to keep them onboard. He also needs to energize conservatives who have complained loudly about the cost of the war in Iraq and what they see as a lack of progress.

I said earlier it's an election year; the administration is worried about turnout, about the Republican faithful just being so disillusioned that they stay home. If they do, that could mean some close races tip over into the Democratic column, which means the Republicans could lose control of Congress, which would make the administration's job even more difficult for the last two years.

MONTAGNE: The administration in the past, though, has been successful in framing the debate about Iraq and rallying support for the war. Will it work this time?

GONYEA: It is certainly getting harder to make that case. I think we can say that just flat out. Polls are trending the other way toward more skepticism. But we all know also that this administration likes to play offense, and look for them to keep pressing hard. And their language demonstrates a couple of things. It shows just how high they see the stakes being here and it reveals just how difficult they see this fight.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Don Gonyea traveling with the president.

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