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Course correction? White House tosses Iraq mantra

From Suzanne Malveaux
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an about-face, the Bush administration announced this week it is tossing out its rallying cry for the Iraq war.

Repeatedly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush has said the U.S. will "stay the course" in the war-torn nation.

As recently as August, during a speech in Utah, Bush said, "If we leave the streets of Baghdad before the job is done, we will have to face the terrorists in our own cities. We will stay the course, we will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed and victory in Iraq will be a major ideological triumph in the struggle of the 21st century." (Watch a U.S. diplomat outline a plan for securing Iraq -- 5:35 Video)

But no more of that from the president, said White House press secretary Tony Snow.

"It allowed critics to say, 'Well, here is an administration that's just embarked upon a policy not looking at what the situation is,' when in fact it's just the opposite," Snow said.

Bush earlier this month explained that "stay the course" was not an inflexible strategy, but rather, an adaptive one.

"Stay the course is about a quarter right," he said. "Stay the course means keep doing what you're doing. My attitude is, don't do what you're doing if it's not working -- change."

Change is exactly what Democrats, and now some prominent Republicans, have been calling for as potentially pivotal midterm elections approach.

October has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops this year, and about 100 Iraqis reportedly are killed every day. The Bush administration is under tremendous political pressure to change course.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, said as much Sunday.

"I don't believe that a shift in tactics ought to wait until after the election. There are too many casualties there," Specter said.

Over the weekend, Bush huddled with his top generals at the White House to discuss Iraq strategy and what to do next. The plan, they decided, is to prod the Iraqis to take more control over their security as quickly as possible.

"It is appropriate to have benchmarks and milestones," Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said of the plan to set deadlines for solving problems in Iraq.

But Democrats say the administration's proposal is the height of hypocrisy.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained his party's skepticism to Fox News: "We set out benchmarks, we tried to get them to accept benchmarks a year and a half ago and the president called it cutting and running. Now the president is calling for benchmarks." (Watch how Democrats were using "stay the course" against the GOP -- 2:23 Video)

But White House officials said those benchmarks are not for withdrawing U.S. troops, a move they claim would be catastrophic for the future of Iraq.

However, the difference may be largely semantic because Bush repeatedly has said U.S. troops can come home as soon as Iraqis are able to protect themselves.

"It's a nondenial denial. It's clear that they're sending a signal that they're changing the course now, not staying the course," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative Washington think tank.

Though the White House said it has abandoned the stay-the-course message, its strategy remains the same. Snow said that there will be no dramatic shifts in policy on Iraq.

Some critics said that's exactly the problem.

"This is the same strategy that has produced so much failure so far," said Fred Kagan, another resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Meanwhile, the strategy also has resulted in falling poll numbers, both for the president and for those in Congress who support him. In two weeks, Bush and his supporters will have to face voters, many of whom say Iraq is the No. 1 issue in this election.

White House spokesman Tony Snow says "stay the course" was a misleading phrase to describe President Bush's policy in Iraq.

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