Bush Speech Does Little To Ease Differences On Iraq

Saturday, September 15th 2007, 4:15 pm
By: News On 6

Outside a Brooklyn art gallery, Kristy Knight threw her arms in the air in exasperation when she was asked about the war in Iraq, which has her angry, frustrated and flatly disbelieving President Bush.

Across the country, as he finished off a cup of coffee in Grants Pass, Ore., Gerald Fitzgerald insisted the only way the United States should leave Iraq is with victory _ no ``cutting and running or bailing or anything else.''

But when Knight gave her forecast for the war, she could have been speaking for either of them: ``I don't think it's ending anytime soon.''

President Bush, addressing the nation on the war Thursday from the Oval Office, said it was possible, ``for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together.''

And in a way, they have, if interviews scattered around the nation after the speech are any indication: Americans expect a large U.S. presence in Iraq for years to come, including well after Bush leaves office in January 2009.

They still disagree passionately about whether the war was a good idea to begin with, and whether, as the president insists, maintaining it will ultimately make the United States safer. But few appear to think an end is in sight.

``We'll be there for at least another two, three years,'' predicted Jim Hudgens, a bartender and musician who was out for a bike ride in Fresno, Calif., and who described himself as a liberal Democrat. ``No one seems to have the guts to change policy.''

The president told Americans the ``surge'' strategy he announced in January, which increased the American force in Iraq by about 30,000 troops, was meeting its objectives, citing security gains in Anbar province.

Bush said it was possible for about 5,700 U.S. troops to come home by Christmas, and by late Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had raised the possibility that the U.S. force could drop to 100,000 by the end of 2008.

That would mean a significant withdrawal from the roughly 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now but would guarantee a large American presence there when Bush hands the presidency to his successor in 16 months.

That sits just fine with Lee Daugherty, a salesman at The Gun Shop in Savannah, Ga., who considers himself a conservative-leaning independent and who keeps a crossed-through picture of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton in the store.

``I think we're going to be involved for several more years, there's no doubt in my mind,'' said Daugherty, 58. ``If we're going to see this through, we've got to finish it. We've got to play to win.''

Daugherty said he agrees ``100 percent'' with Bush's assertion that a free Iraq will help protect the U.S. from terrorism at home. Bush said Thursday a free Iraq would also counter Iran and be an ``anchor of stability'' in the Middle East.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, delivering the Democratic response, said Bush had failed to provide an adequate plan to end the war in Iraq or a ``convincing rationale'' to keep it going.

The interviews Friday, an unscientific sampling, reflected some of the familiar opinions of the war itself. Some people mentioned weapons of mass destruction that have never been found; others complained the media was not reporting enough good news from Iraq.

Scientific surveys, meanwhile, have shown an American public clearly turned against the war.

According to the most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Iraq, 57 percent of Americans say the war was a mistake, compared with just 37 percent who said say it was the right decision. Those figures have held roughly steady for more than a year.

A separate AP-Ipsos poll put approval of the president's handling of the war at just 33 percent. Both polls were completed before the Bush address and had margins of sampling error of 3.1 percent.

Other recent opinion polls _ also taken before the Bush speech _ have shown solid majorities of Americans believe the ``surge'' has not stabilized Iraq and favor some type of U.S. withdrawal, gradual or immediate.

One of them is Joan Stander, a 76-year-old part-time substitute teacher, who turned up at a small weekly antiwar protest in Montpelier, Vt., carrying a sign that read, ``Demand an end to this unjust war.''

But she said she did not expect an end unless Congress pulled the plug on financing the war. ``I don't think they have the guts,'' she said.

Frustration with Iraq helped Democrats regain control of the House and Senate, but the party has been unwilling to unite behind proposals to cut off funding for the war.

Several people interviewed around the nation said they felt conflicted about the next step in Iraq, discouraged as the U.S. death toll climbs steadily toward 4,000 but worried about what might happen if the United States pulls out.

``I think it's going to be at least a 10-year war unless we just pull out,'' said Barbara Tudder, a customer service representative from Topeka, Kan., who on Friday was visiting Abraham Lincoln landmarks in Springfield, Ill.

But she fretted: ``If the United States pulls out, what does that say about us? That we can be scared off? That we can be intimidated? I think we literally just have to stay the course, do the best can and show the world that we're a power to be reckoned with.''

And at the Alamo, the San Antonio church that came to symbolize a heroic stand for freedom and independence, Joy Stovall, a 50-year-old Republican visiting from Seattle, figured it would be at least 2009 before the U.S. could conduct a major withdrawal.

``I think we'll always have a presence there,'' she added. ``If we get out too early, we'll have done it for nothing.''