Citing Faith, Bush Defends War
NY Times
March 12, 2008

NASHVILLE — President Bush delivered a rousing defense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Tuesday, mixing faith and foreign policy as he told a group of Christian broadcasters that his policies in the region were predicated on the beliefs that freedom was a God-given right and "every human being bears the image of our maker."

In a 42-minute speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Mr. Bush called upon European allies to step up their efforts in Afghanistan, and conceded that recent security gains in Iraq "are tenuous, they're reversible and they're fragile." Still, he insisted his troop buildup there is succeeding.

"The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency," Mr. Bush said, to a standing ovation. "It is the right decision at this point in my presidency, and it will forever be the right decision."

The speech, coming a week before the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, is the first of three talks on terrorism and war policy that Mr. Bush will give before next month's Congressional testimony by the top American military commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the senior diplomat there, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

General Petraeus is widely expected to recommend a temporary pause in troop withdrawals from Iraq, although at least one senior administration official said the president envisions further reductions this year. With the nation's attention turned to the race to succeed Mr. Bush, White House aides say the speeches are a way for the president to frame the Iraq discussion, taking it back from the presidential candidates and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

"It's a way of resetting a little bit," said one senior White House official. "There was a lot of talk about the surge, and then when the surge worked, it was like, 'O.K., it worked,' and then '08 heated up and people sort of moved on. People need to be reminded of who we're up against and what the stakes are."

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush cast the stakes in stark terms, repeatedly invoking his desire to spread freedom and democracy, the central themes of his foreign policy. Those themes are hardly new to American presidents. Woodrow Wilson talked about making the world safe for democracy, while Ronald Reagan warned that "freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

But Mr. Bush, most experts agree, has taken the American freedom agenda to an entirely new level, by trying to foster democracy in nations that have not known it before, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Some historians have called it folly, and Mr. Bush conceded in an interview with conservative commentators last year that his critics believe he is "hopelessly idealistic."

Still, he renewed his case on Tuesday, predicting that liberty will soon be on the march in the region.

"The effects of a free Iraq and a free Afghanistan will reach beyond the borders of those two countries," Mr. Bush said. "It will show others what's possible. And we undertake this work because we believe that every human being bears the image of our maker. That's why we're doing this. No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."

Mr. Bush's faith is well known; he credits his acceptance of Jesus with turning his life around by helping him to quit drinking at age 40. His beliefs have colored his policy decisions on matters ranging from abortion to embryonic stem-cell research to fighting malaria and AIDS in Africa.

Christian conservatives are an important component of Mr. Bush's political base, and the broadcasters greeted him so enthusiastically on Tuesday that he laughed and called them "kind of a rambunctious crowd."

The last time he last time he talked to the religious broadcasters, in 2003, he focused on his faith-based initiative.

On Tuesday, he opened with a nod to the Rev. Billy Graham, who is recovering from surgery at his home in North Carolina. Mr. Bush said the preacher "brought the gospel to millions, and many years ago he helped me change my life."

He went on to praise the broadcasters for "standing up for our values, including the right to life," and pledged to veto any legislation that would reinstitute the so-called "fairness doctrine," which required broadcasters to give air time to opposing views.

Mr. Bush often talks about his belief in "the universality of freedom," as he did last year to a conference of political dissidents in Prague. But rarely has the president mixed the language of faith and God so closely with talk of war and terrorism, as he did Tuesday at the Opryland hotel here.

Calling freedom a "precious gift," Mr. Bush said: "The liberty we value is not ours alone. Freedom is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to all humanity." His words were punctuated by shouts of "Amen."

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