WASHINGTON - For the third time in recent days, President Bush was back out on his farewell "victory" tour Wednesday, this time to the friendly confines of the Army War College at Carlisle, Pa., where nary a shoe was thrown at him.
He repeated essentially the same defense of his war in Iraq he had delivered to the Army cadets at West Point a couple of days before his quick flight there, and the embarrassing incident that dominated television screens and Internet sites around the world.
The president, who likes to kick off such speeches with a little self-deprecating humor, noted the Army College was originally located 107 years earlier across the street from the White House. "Apparently after a few years on Pennsylvania Avenue," he told his hosts, "it was time to back up your bags. Laura and I know the feeling." The quip brought down the house.
In leaving the White House, Bush said, "I'm most going to miss being the commander in chief" and being able "to serve with people who are willing to stand up and step forward to address the great challenge to freedom and democracy of our time."
He then launched into a broad defense of his response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which he included not only the clearly imperative military action in Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaida perpetrators and their Taliban hosts (still undone), but also his subsequent invasion of Iraq.
"After 9/11," he said, "we also re-examined the danger posed by Iraq, a country that combined support for terror, the development and use of weapons of mass destruction, aggression against its neighbors, routine attacks on Americans, systematic violations of U.N. resolutions."
Thus lumping Iraq in as a 9/11 response, Bush went on: "We concluded that the world could not tolerate such a destabilizing and dangerous force in the heart of the Middle East. I offered Saddam Hussein a final chance to resolve the issue peacefully. It was his choice to make. And when he refused, we acted with a coalition of nations to protect our people - and liberate 25 million Iraqis."
To borrow Ronald Reagan's famous phrase, "There you go again, Mr. President." With this rationale, Bush not only was taking upon himself to declare what the world would tolerate, he also was again misrepresenting the facts by leaving out that the Iraqi dictator was willing to allow inspectors back in to look for the WMDs that, it turned out, weren't there.
As Bush heads for the door, that nagging question of their existence as the dominant rationale for the invasion follows him. In a recent interview with ABC News' Charlie Gibson, he was asked, if he had a "do-over," what it would be. The president replied: "I don't know. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. . . . That's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess."
When Gibson asked whether, if he had known the weapons of mass destruction were not there, he still would have invaded Iraq, Bush answered: "That's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate."
In a subsequent interview on Bush's final Iraq trip, he told ABC News' Martha Radditz: "One of the major theaters against al-Qaida has turned out to be Iraq. When al-Qaida said it was going to take a stand, this was where al-Qaida was hoping to take . . ." She interrupted: "But not until after the United States invaded." To which Bush replied: "Yeah, that's right. So what?"
He predicted that history will say "the world is better off without Saddam" and that "we along with the Iraqi troops have denied al-Qaida a safe haven, because they're becoming defeated and because a young democracy is beginning to grow, which will be an important sign for people in the Middle East."
To the very end, Bush seems intent on justifying a war of uncertain outcome based on a faulty premise. It's an argument that is unlikely to shore up the legacy he is striving so hard to salvage in these last days.
Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press.
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