— While most eyes have been focused on the still-recovering Gulf Coast during the first half of this week, the Bush Administration has been dispatching some of its biggest names in national security to test September 11 anniversary messages before military audiences, including the veterans' conventions that are held at about this time every year.
It's within this larger context that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asserted yesterday, at the American Legion's annual convention, that critics of the Administration's Iraq and anti-terror policies are trying to appease "a new type of fascism." He also called Iraq the "epicenter" of the war on terror, illustrating the fine line Bush and his officials are trying to walk on this topic as Bush is now saying he never suggested that Iraq was behind the September 11 strike. When NBC's Brian Williams pointed out in his interview with Bush yesterday that Iraqis were not the attackers, Bush said, "They -- they weren't -- no I agree, they weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they're a part of -- Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists... I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, 'al Qaeda, attack America.'" Democratic operatives say they plan to hit back hard on Rumsfeld's comments today, details TBD.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played good cop to Rumsfeld's bad cop yesterday. Despite her equally prominent role in setting the Administration's Iraq policy, Rice's rare domestic address to the American Legion highlighted how she has suffered far less criticism over the war than Rumsfeld, in part because of her less confrontational style. She echoed some of Bush's words from his recent news conference, strongly defending America's role in Iraq and warning of severe consequences if America quits "before the job is done." She also said she's aware of the concern across the country about the course and future of the war, but urged Americans to stay committed to the effort, NBC's Libby Leist reports.
This series of speeches will be capped off by Bush's own address to the American Legion tomorrow. It's not the first time the Administration has used these audiences to try to send messages on national security during a campaign year. In 2004, Bush used a VFW speech to announce that he was calling for what his campaign termed as "the largest troop realignment since the end of the Cold War," though that realignment did not directly affect troop status in Iraq. At the time, the campaign claimed the "plan will strengthen the military's ability to address threats in a post 9/11 world and improve its ability to protect America." (Sen. John Kerry addressed the VFW two days later.) The Wall Street Journal says today that Bush's speech tomorrow will kick off a third round of presidential remarks intended to bolster public support for the war.