Cold truths are lurking after pomp on carrier
By Elisabeth Bumiller
WASHINGTON -- President Bush's made-for-television address tonight on the carrier Abraham Lincoln was a powerful, Reaganesque finale to a six-week war. But beneath the golden images of a president steaming home with his troops toward the California coast lay the cold political and military realities that drove Mr. Bush's advisers to create the moment.
The president declared an end to major combat operations, White House, Pentagon and State Department officials said, for three crucial reasons: to signify the shift of American soldiers from the role of conquerors to police, to open the way for aid from countries that refused to help militarily and — above all — to signal to voters that Mr. Bush is shifting his focus from Baghdad to concerns at home.
Mr. Bush was careful, though, not to close the door completely on his greatest political strength, his role as the warrior president who struck back after Sept. 11. For the first time in months, he reprised his most emotional oratory from the attacks and directly tied it to Iraq and his battle against terrorism.
"The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on," he said.
Even so, administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Bush's declaration of an all-but-over war carried huge risks. Not only could Iraq blow up again, they said, but major tasks were also unfinished. Weapons of mass destruction have not been found, Saddam Hussein's fate is a mystery and American troops remain under attack. Some political strategists say the Republican advantage over Democrats on national security has never been greater, and they questioned whether Mr. Bush should so quickly distance himself from his role as commander in chief.
Mr. Bush himself cautioned about the risks, saying:
"We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. We are pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime, who will be held account for their crimes."
But when Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, happily told friends last week that Mr. Bush would soon declare the war over, it was a turning point that re-energized a White House domestic staff eager to step into the light after months in the West Wing shadows. Mr. Bush's speech, a cautious victory dance, was intended to use the capital from the military success to push forward his domestic agenda.
"The big event is over," Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, said. "Why not take a victory lap, and what politico would advise against it? Bush's tone is excellent right now. He's good at the emotions of war. He doesn't appear giddy. He doesn't appear overcongratulatory. He doesn't have Rumsfeld's tendency to go around and boast and taunt his critics."
Administration officials said the first reason for the speech, to recognize the troops' shift to policing, was an effort to keep White House oratory in sync with reality. In military parlance, Mr. Bush was making a statement of the "commander's intent" to 300,000 members of the air, land and naval forces in the Persian Gulf that the war was essentially over, an important moment of psychological closure.
"This is the military," a senior administration official said. "They don't just roll in one day. Everything is defined. They need somebody to declare, `This thing is over.' "
The statement was directed as much at civilians at home and abroad, other administration officials said, to make clear that the United States is determined, eventually, to leave.
"This is the formalization that tells everybody we're not engaged in combat anymore, we're prepared for getting out," a senior administration official said.
The second reason for Mr. Bush's speech, to clear the way for countries that did not contribute to combat operations, was also widely seen as an opening of the door for humanitarian and nongovernmental organizations to move into Baghdad.
"It goes hand in hand with the military, essentially saying that it's a much less dangerous environment for people to operate in," an administration official said.
It was the third reason for the speech, changing the subject to domestic concerns and Mr. Bush's future, that motivated the White House to create an extraordinary moment of presidential political theater on the deck of the Lincoln. Republicans noted that whoever came up with the idea of having Mr. Bush jet onto the carrier in a flight suit, looking rugged and windblown while surrounded by sailors and fighter pilots, had earned the day's pay.
The television images would quite likely be some of the final images of the president at war, and White House advisers were clearly determined to make them lasting ones.
In a sense, Mr. Bush was leaving the political comforts of his role as commander in chief and stepping into the possibly treacherous role as steward of the economy.
"Let's face it, Bush's strength is his foreign policy leadership," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a lobbying group that has close ties to the White House. "By turning away from foreign policy issues, it makes him somewhat more vulnerable in that now people focus on jobs and the stock market and the economy generally."
Mr. Moore noted that in the last century no president had been re-elected when the stock market was down in his first term, with Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover being prime examples.
But Mr. Bush, basking in the warm early evening light over the Pacific Ocean, sounded the names of the presidents of his pantheon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and, of course, Ronald Reagan, who inspired the entire event.