The New York Times
August 31, 2004
NASHUA, N.H., Aug. 30 - President Bush, in an interview broadcast on Monday, said that he did not think America could win the war on terror but that it could make terrorism less acceptable around the world, a departure from his previous optimistic statements that the United States would eventually prevail.
In the interview with Matt Lauer of the NBC program "Today," conducted on Saturday but shown on the opening day of the Republican National Convention, Mr. Bush was asked if the United States could win the war against terrorism, which he has made the focus of his administration and the central thrust of his re-election campaign.
"I don't think you can win it," Mr. Bush replied. "But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
As recently as July 19, Mr. Bush had drawn a far sunnier picture. "I have a clear vision and a strategy to win the war on terror," he said.
At a prime-time news conference in the East Room of the White House on April 13, Mr. Bush said: "One of the interesting things people ask me, now that we are asking questions, is, 'Can you ever win the war on terror?' Of course you can."
It was unclear if Mr. Bush had meant to make the remark to Mr. Lauer, or if he misspoke. But White House officials said the president was not signaling a change in policy, and they sought to explain his statement by saying he was emphasizing the longterm nature of the struggle.
Taken at face value, however, Mr. Bush's words would put him closer to the positions of the United States' European allies, who have considered Mr. Bush's talk of victory as simplistic and unhelpful.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One that Mr. Bush was speaking about winning the war "in the conventional sense" and that his comments underscored the reality that ridding the world of terrorists would take decades.
"I don't think you can expect that there will ever be a formal surrender or a treaty signed like we have in wars past," Mr. McClellan said. "That's what he was talking about. It requires a generational commitment to win this war on terrorism."
Mr. Bush's comment came only a few days after an interview with The New York Times in which he acknowledged a "miscalculation'' about the evolution of the insurgency in Iraq, saying that no one could have anticipated that a swift military victory would allow forces loyal to Saddam Hussein and others to melt into the cities and launch attacks on American forces.
But Democrats clearly saw those comments, and the one broadcast Monday, as missteps they could exploit, much as Mr. Bush has attacked Mr. Kerry's remark that he would have authorized the president to invade Iraq if he had known then what he knows now about Iraq's weapons.
"After months of listening to the Republicans base their campaign on their singular ability to win the war on terror, the president now says we can't win the war on terrorism," Senator John Edwards, Mr. Kerry's running mate, said in a statement. "This is no time to declare defeat - it won't be easy and it won't be quick, but we have a comprehensive longterm plan to make America safer. And that's a difference."
Mr. Edwards elaborated on his criticism in an interview Monday with the ABC program "Nightline.'' Mr. Edwards said the battle against terrorism was "absolutely winnable" with the right leadership. "Now, in order to win it," Mr. Edwards said, "we have to do the right thing, which includes some of the things that I spoke about today: reform our intelligence operations, more human intelligence inside these terrorist cells, being more aggressive about the developing nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, and different plans - a more effective plan in Iraq, a more effective plan in Afghanistan.''
Mr. Kerry, who has limited his campaigning this week, was asked at his vacation home in Nantucket whether the war on terror could be won. He replied, "Absolutely."
Analysts said Mr. Bush's comment reflected both foreign policy and political realities, and appeared intended in part to emphasize that even a striking breakthrough, like the capture of Osama bin Laden, would not by itself assure the nation's security.
"From the start it's been clear that we're dealing with an ideological struggle that affects a region, and not just a single movement or group," said Anthony Cordesman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
With Mr. Kerry having trouble getting across how his approach would have been different from Mr. Bush's approach to Iraq, Mr. Bush can show some flexibility in his thinking, Mr. Cordesman said. "Bush can afford to move to a more nuanced ground precisely because Kerry has been unable to occupy it," he said.
Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York sounded more optimistic about overcoming terrorism when he addressed the convention Monday evening. "We will see an end to global terrorism,'' Mr. Giuliani said. "I know it will happen. It may seem a long way off. It may even seem idealistic. But it may not be as far away and idealistic as it seems.''
Mr. Bush's comment was broadcast as he campaigned in Michigan and New Hampshire on his record on fighting terrorism, part of a leadup to his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in New York on Thursday night. In a part of the NBC interview that was broadcast during the weekend, he also commented on his National Guard service during the Vietnam War and that of Mr. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran. "I think him going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets,'' Mr. Bush said. "On the other hand, I served my country. Had my unit been called up I would have gone.''
In New Hampshire, Mr. Bush got an unusually tough question at an "Ask President Bush" event at Nashua High School North, forcing him to detour from his message of the day and defend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel.
"How can Ariel Sharon be a man of peace, as you've said, if he causes death and torture among innocent Palestinians?" demanded a young woman who said she had recently spent two weeks in Libya.
"That's a great question," Mr. Bush responded. "First of all, Ariel Sharon is defending his country against terrorist attacks, just like we will." Mr. Bush then blamed the Palestinians for holding up progress in the Middle East. "Ariel Sharon is a duly elected official in a democracy," the president said. "We would hope that the Palestinians would have that same kind of democracy."