FORT POLK, La. - President Bush warned yesterday that the country should not become complacent about the danger of terrorism, telling a spirited audience of National Guard and regular Army troops that since the Sept. 11 attacks, his focus as president has been to keep the country safe.
"Life in America in many ways has returned to normal, and that's a good thing," Bush said. "I want every American to know that I understand my job as your president. I have a duty to protect the American people, and my resolve is the same today as it was on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001. My resolve is the same as it was on the day when I walked in the rubble of the twin towers. I will not relent until this threat to America is removed."
In line with the current White House emphasis on the president's wartime leadership, Bush mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks six times in the 25-minute speech. The president also stressed his "resolve" - a word he used four times and a theme reprised in various ways throughout the speech.
"The struggle began on a September morning, when terrorists murdered thousands of our fellow citizens," Bush said, backed by a spray of bleachers with soldiers in red and black berets. "We saw the violence and grief that terrorists can inflict. We had a glimpse of a far worse harm that the terrorists intend for us. And on behalf of this nation, I made a pledge: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."
In addition to career soldiers, the audience included a large contingent of National Guard troops, dressed in sand-colored desert fatigues, who are scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the next few weeks. The crowd greeted the president's arrival and parts of his speech with traditional whoops and chants of "USA!"
In the weeks since the Democratic primary race got under way, Bush's speeches and public events have been designed to call attention to what aides consider the president's strongest appeal to the public: his decisiveness after the Sept. 11 attacks. That emphasis also serves to underscore what Republicans consider the opposition's weakness - the impression that Democrats are less able to manage national security crises.
In his remarks, Bush also defended his decision to invade and occupy Iraq, insisting that the prewar intelligence was incontrovertible that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States.
"The former regime in Iraq also witnessed America's resolve to confront dangers before they fully materialize. My administration looked at the intelligence information, and we saw danger. Members of Congress looked at the same intelligence, and they saw danger. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw a danger," Bush said. "We reached a reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a danger."
After the speech, the president lunched on Army rations with the Guard troops. "Man, what a meal!" Bush said, referring to his beef enchilada MRE, or "meal ready to eat" - a comment that earned hearty laughter from the troops, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
It was the second time in three days that the president took part in photo opportunities that included the National Guard. On Sunday, Bush posed next to a Guard-sponsored race car at the Daytona 500.
White House officials said recent scrutiny of the president's National Guard service had not influenced his decision to visit the base and meet with National Guard troops. But two base officials said they had learned of the visit only within the past week.
"There's no relation to recent events," McClellan said afterward. He added that White House officials had been talking to Pentagon officials about the trip for several weeks, but he could not comment on when base officials had been notified.
Fort Polk is home to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and one of the Army's three combat training centers, which specializes in advanced training for light infantry forces.
More than 10,000 troops have deployed from Fort Polk to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.