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Bush determined to weather gathering storm


Sydney Morning Herald
By Michael Gawenda Herald Correspondent in Washington
August 13, 2005

Cold comfort … Cindy Sheehan is comforted by Bill Mitchell, whose son Mike was also killed in Iraq.
Photo: Reuters

Camped along the side of the road that leads to the Bush ranch near the town of Crawford, Texas, Cindy Sheehan has become the focus of a growing sentiment in the US - that the war in Iraq is unwinnable and that the only way to end the mounting toll of US deaths is to start withdrawing American troops.

Ms Sheehan began her vigil last Saturday when George Bush arrived at the ranch for a five-week stay - billed as a holiday by his opponents, although Mr Bush is doing more than just clearing scrub in the 40 degree Texas heat.

A steady stream of senior administration officials have driven past Ms Sheehan's camp, which by Thursday had swelled to more than 200 people, there to support her demand for a meeting with Mr Bush to ask him why her son Casey, 24, "had to die".

Casey Sheehan was killed in an attack on his army unit in Iraq in April last year, five days after he arrived in the country. Cindy Sheehan was there, beside the road, on Thursday when the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, came to discuss with Mr Bush what a White House spokesman called "security and defence issues".

At a news conference during a break in the talks, Mr Bush, flanked by Dr Rice and Mr Cheney, said he sympathised with Ms Sheehan.

"She feels strongly about her position," he said. "She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America."

He said he had thought long and hard about her position, which was for the US to get out of Iraq immediately. That would be a grave mistake, a betrayal of the Iraqi people and a victory for a "ruthless and murderous enemy".

That Mr Bush spoke directly to Ms Sheehan's concerns showed what she has become: a lightning rod for the growing number of Americans who believe the US has no strategy for victory in Iraq, that the war was a mistake and that too many US lives have been lost in a war that has made them less safe.

Cindy Sheehan now holds daily news conferences that receive national media coverage and who cannot be easily dismissed by the more rabid pro-war activists as just another liberal appeaser and traitor.

With Congress in recess, with many Americans on holiday, and the news dominated by the surge in US casualties in Iraq this past fortnight, she has managed to create what many observers are describing as a "perfect storm".

The polls for Mr Bush are terrible. His approval rating in the latest Gallup poll is 42 per cent. A Newsweek poll this week had 61 per cent of respondents saying they disapproved of the way he was handling the war, and a USA Today poll showed that 57 per cent believe the war has made them less safe.

Faced with bad polls, no certainty that the draft Iraqi constitution will be finished by next Monday's deadline and escalating casualties, the Bush Administration has been unable to come up with a coherent and agreed message on Iraq.

There have been signs that under pressure, differences are beginning to emerge. For a while it seemed that the Administration had decided to rename the "war on terror" the "global struggle against extremism". But then Mr Bush used the term war on terror 15 times in a five-minute speech about the terrorist threat facing the US, before he left for his Texas ranch. There was no more talk about the global struggle.

Of more concern, there have been mixed and contradictory signals about whether or not there could be a substantial pullout of US troops from Iraq early next year.

Senior military officers, including the US Commander in Iraq, General George Casey, say that up to 30,000 troops could be withdrawn in the first half of next year. Pentagon officials also briefed reporters to reinforce the message that a pullout was a possibility.

That plan has now evaporated. This week officials are saying US forces will have to be increased before the constitutional referendum in October and elections in December.

Mr Rumsfeld refused to discuss any withdrawal at a recent news conference. Instead, he said more sophisticated and more lethal arms were being shipped to Iraqi insurgents and terrorists from Iran.

George Bush now seems to concede that the White House had been sending out mixed messages about Iraq. Speaking outside his ranch Mr Bush said talk about troops withdrawals was just speculation, and that no decisions had been made, and when one was it would be "made by me".

He emphasised that the Iraq policy was his responsibility and his call. "My position has not changed," he said. "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. The mission in Iraq is tough because the enemy knows what's at stake.

"We are a nation at war. We are fighting a war against terror. The war arrived on our shores on September 11, 2001."

Obviously Mr Bush is not for turning. Despite the bad polls, despite the gathering anti-war campaign building on the stories of people like Cindy Sheehan, about 53 per cent of Americans do not want the US to "cut and run" from Iraq. Yet.

Mr Bush's challenge is to convince wavering Americans that there is no alternative to staying the distance in Iraq and that eventually some sort of functioning democracy will prevail.

He knows that this is the biggest test of his presidency.

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