Bush Administration Alters Terms for Discussing Iraq

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President Bush and senior members of his Cabinet all spoke this week about Iraq. A review of the statements suggests that the language used to describe the situation has changed. But does a shift in language mean a change in strategy coming?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

As October became the deadliest month of the year for U.S. forces in Iraq, President Bush and other White House officials spent much of this week talking about the conflict in that country. Change was a major theme, but not any major change in U.S. strategy or tactics. The change was in the way the war is being discussed and the language the administration uses in its effort to restore public support for the current U.S. role in Iraq. In a few minutes we'll talk about that change with our guest political commentators.

First, NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: The first sign of a shift came when the White House said it was longer using this phrase:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will stay the course.

GONYEA: A phrase that for many had come to epitomize President Bush's decision making, especially on Iraq.

But the president had not actually uttered that phrase in public since August 30. This week, the White House explained that it had decided the phrase did not convey the president's flexibility and openness to adjustment.

Talking to reporters at the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow suggested the phrase had never been that meaningful and in an interview on Fox News he said it wasn't even used much.

Mr. TONY SNOW (Press Secretary, White House): You know this is a great story, John, because the president - we went back and looked today and we could only find eight times where he'd ever used the term, the phrase stay the course.

GONYEA: That prompted MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, a strong critic of the war, to check that claim. He played tape clips of the president saying stay the course eight times earlier this year and then, with an onscreen counter tolling away, kept rolling earlier tape clips of additional occasions when the president had used the phrase.

President BUSH: We're there to stay the course and we'll stay the course. Stay the course. Stay the course. Stay the course. Stay the course. We will stay the course. And yet we must stay the course. And we will stay the course in Iraq, and that's what we're doing.

GONYEA: Olbermann finally let it go after the counter reached 29 but if stay the course is gone, what's the new theme? So far, no specific phrase has emerged nor has a new policy direction other than the current one. But the president did have a sudden news conference at mid-week where he signaled a more candid tone for talking about how the war is going.

President BUSH: I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either.

GONYEA: But the president also insists there will be victory and he had this admonition for those who are weary of the war.

President BUSH: We cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in this war.

GONYEA: Professor Wayne Fields of Washington University, St. Louis studies presidential rhetoric. He says a president chooses words to sway public opinion but that it works the other way as well. Public opinion can force a change of rhetoric.

Professor WAYNE FIELDS (Washington University): The president has to respond to the emotional state of the American people. Part of the change that you see is his recognition of what has been changing in us. You can't just assert that it's a matter of trusting me and I'll take care of it. It's become increasingly one where that audience recognizes this is a subtle and complicated situation we're in and we'd better have more subtle and complicated responses.

GONYEA: Vice President Dick Cheney was also sounding slightly different about Iraq this week. Back in the summer of 2005, he famously said the insurgency in Iraq was in its last throes. During an interview on NPR's MORNING EDITION this week, he was asked if he still thought so.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I can't say that. I made it clear earlier that I would have expected that the political process we set in motion, the three national elections and so forth, would have resulted in a lower level of violence than we're seeing today. It hasn't happened yet. I can't say that we're over the hump in terms of violence, no.

GONYEA: But at the end of the day, the president and vice president still say the U.S. is winning in Iraq.

And then there's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has not even changed his tone. He was at the Pentagon yesterday answering questions from reporters.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): This is complicated stuff. It's difficult. We're looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. So you ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax.

GONYEA: And if the administration's voices have yet to find a new common theme, there's one other big thing affecting how the public hears all of this. The war has become the dominant issue in midterm elections that are now just 11 days away. The president ended his White House news conference this week by saying quote, see you on the campaign trail, and in doing so he himself put a political punctuation mark at the end of everything he'd just said.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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