Bush’s optimism wounded

WASHINGTON — Twelve months ago, President George W. Bush warned Americans there would be new sacrifices in Iraq, but called for optimism. On the eve of 2007, Bush seems to have sacrificed that hope.

Gone is the talk of Iraq becoming a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Bush no longer repeats his “stay the course” mantra.

What a difference a year has made.

“Despite the violence, Iraqis are optimistic — and that optimism is justified,” the president said in a speach to the American nation on December 18 last year.

Almost a year later to the day, Bush presented a more sombre assessment as he quoted a top US general as saying “we’re not winning, we’re not losing” in Iraq.

The remark, in an interview with The Washington Post published Wednesday, marked a reversal of his statement — “absolutely, we’re winning” — made before the November 7 legislative elections in which Bush’s Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats, largely over Iraq.

Asked about the comments at a Wednesday press conference, Bush said: “I believe that we’re going to win.” His comments to The Washington Post “reflected the fact that we’re not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted”.  A year ago, Bush said: “Our forces in Iraq are on the road to victory — and that is the road that will take them home.” Iraq had then just held votes on a new parliament and a new constitution, events which he described as “the beginning of something new: Constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East.” Just two months later, on February 22, the holy Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed and the sectarian warfare between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis escalated.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki only took office in Baghdad in May but the US military was forced to send more troops to Iraq and the violence has still worsened.

A White House memo written by US national security adviser Stephen Hadley, recently leaked to the US media, raised doubts about Maliki’s ability to control the violence.

The result of the US election forced Bush into action. One day after the defeat, Bush replaced Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, architect of the “war on terror” and the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq, with former CIA chief Robert Gates.

The president has ordered his administration to re-assess Iraq policy and he is set to unveil a new strategy in January.

Bush faces mounting pressure from the Democrats, who will control Congress from January, and falling opinion poll support, to announce even the start of a withdrawal.

But insists that withdrawal would make Iraq a haven for “terrorists” and said he remained confident of a victory, which he defined as “a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and is an ally in this war on terror.” “Everybody’s trying to write the history of this [US] administration even before it’s over,” Bush said of the criticism Wednesday.

“I’m reading about George Washington still. My attitude is if they’re still analyzing number one, (president number) 43 ought not to worry about it, and just do what he think is right, and make the tough choices necessary,” he said.

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