Words get in the way for Bush in Iraq debate
WASHINGTON, Oct 25: Words have never been a strong point for US President George W Bush, who has even joked about his habit of mangling the English language.
But two weeks before elections likely to hinge on growing public frustration over Iraq, Bush and his top aides are scrambling to redefine the terms of the wartime debate, hoping it will help stave off a Democratic takeover of Congress.
Critics dismiss the shift in rhetoric as a smokescreen to hide a failed Iraq policy from voters, but analysts say it could be more than just semantics if it leads to a significant change of course.
''It shows political desperation,'' said Martin Medhurst, professor of rhetoric at Baylor University in Waco. ''The question is whether Bush's rhetoric will come into alignment with reality in Iraq, which has not been the case before.'' Banished from Bush's vernacular is ''stay the course,'' which was his mantra for conveying America's resolve in Iraq until Democrats seized on the phrase as a sign that he and his fellow Republicans unresponsive to mounting U.S. casualties.
Bush and his team are also insisting on a distinction between ''tactics,'' which he is willing to change, and ''strategy,'' which he isn't.
And the White House is willing to talk only of ''milestones'' and ''benchmarks'' for getting Iraqis to shoulder more of the security burden -- never ''deadlines'' or ''ultimatums,'' which imply penalties if they fail to do so.
Even the definition of victory has undergone a makeover, with Bush no longer focusing on the goal of transforming Iraq into a flourishing democracy in the Middle East.
Instead, with sectarian violence raging, he now speaks -- as he did at a Florida fund-raiser on Tuesday -- of keeping U.S. troops there until Iraq can ''defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself and be an ally in the war on terror.''
The effort to articulate new language on Iraq has been anything but smooth for Bush, whose sometimes muddled syntax, mispronunciation of words like nuclear (''nukular'') and verbal gaffes have long been fodder for late-night TV comedians.
Bush has insisted he does not ''do nuance,'' and aides say his folksy style has helped endear him to Middle America. ''It's no surprise that his message on Iraq has not been resonating,'' said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Penn. ''George W. Bush is not a great communicator.'' He acknowledged his limitations at an October 11 news conference, saying, ''Nobody has accused me of having a real sophisticated vocabulary,'' when asked to justify his branding of Democrats as the party of ''cut and run'' from Iraq.
Bush stirred the debate again last week he was asked in an ABC interview about comments by former Secretary of State James Baker that an Iraq commission he co-chairs is pursuing alternatives to ''cut and run'' and ''stay the course''.
''Well, listen, we've never been stay the course...,'' Bush said. Liberal bloggers immediately flooded Web sites with video clips of Bush repeatedly vowing that America would ''stay the course'' until victory in Iraq.
Clarifying Bush's comment, his spokesman Tony Snow said the president had stopped using the phrase weeks ago.
''It left the wrong impression about what was going on and it allowed critics to say, 'Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,' when, in fact, it is the opposite.'' Democratic critics, who have hammered Bush for an open-ended military commitment in Iraq as they campaign to take over Congress in the Nov. 7 elections, say the administration is just trying to muddy the debate.
''The administration ditched the stay-the-course rhetoric in time for the mid-term elections, but they haven't ditched the failed course and that is immoral,'' said Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who lost to Bush in the 2004 presidential election.
Normally unflappable, Snow, a former Fox News commentator and conservative radio host, has stumbled in recent days trying to explain the rhetorical twists and turns.
He became so exasperated at one briefing he bumped his head on the microphone as a reporter complained of contradictions in the distinctions he cited between ''tactics'' and ''strategy''.
''Sorry, we're talking different languages,'' he said.