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Bush softens rhetoric on Iraq war success


WASHINGTON -- President Bush, after years of celebrating successes in the Iraq war only to see them give way to more violence, is toning down his rhetoric in what strategists see as a bid to calibrate public expectations of progress there.

Bush said yesterday that he would do "what it takes" to help the new Iraqi government succeed and announced that he was sending senior members of his administration to Baghdad to assist their Iraqi counterparts.

"I sense something different happening in Iraq," the president said, hours after returning from a surprise, whirlwind visit to Iraq's capital. He said he saw a "tangible difference" between the new Iraqi government and past ones.

But Bush, who has rarely missed an opportunity to celebrate gains in the war, sometimes in swaggering tones, was more careful with his language.

He rejected outright a chance to tag the recent killing of insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as something that would "turn the tide" in Iraq, and he was choosy with his words as he described how he views progress in the war.

"Did I say those words?" Bush asked a reporter who inquired during a Rose Garden news conference whether the tide was turning in Iraq.

His tamped-down rhetoric is part of an effort to reverse what national polls show had been a steady erosion of public trust in his conduct of the war, in part by bringing his words more in line with Americans' assessments of the war's progress, analysts said.

"The tone is more measured - it is closer to what most Americans perceive as the reality in Iraq. It is optimistic but reasonable, and consequently more credible" than Bush's former rhetoric, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

The new approach has already helped Bush, Ayres said, pushing up his popularity in recent weeks.

The president, analysts say, wants to avoid giving overly optimistic assessments that can be thrown back in his face during difficult moments, as was his 2003 photo opportunity on board an aircraft carrier decorated with a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

But, they say, Bush is also hoping to persuade the public - albeit in less attention-grabbing terms - that there are reasons for optimism.

"There is a noticeable change," Bush said.

Along with the shift in rhetoric has come an explicit effort by Bush to lower expectations in the wake of al-Zarqawi's death and the formation of a new Iraqi government.

"If we are here to say success in Iraq is no violence, I don't think that is [an] accurate way to judge success or failure," Bush told reporters on Air Force One during the return trip from Baghdad.

Answering questions during his news conference, Bush said the public should focus on other ways of assessing progress in the war.

"The reason why I said that we shouldn't ... have a zero-violence expectation is because there are other measures to determine success," including political ones, Bush said.

"They're finally getting realistic about things, and realizing that it's going to be, at best, a long and incremental struggle," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University foreign policy specialist who formerly advised the U.S.-led interim government in Iraq.

The transformation began to emerge last month during a news conference at the White House with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which Bush said his "tough talk" had been one of his biggest mistakes, said Diamond, who called the statement a "breakthrough" for the president.

"Though the change in tone is welcome - both in terms of relating to the situation in Iraq and in terms of steeling public opinion for what's going to continue to be a very long and difficult struggle - I don't see a truly new strategy for turning this situation around," Diamond said.

The new, more restrained Bush appears to reflect a recognition at the White House that while it's crucial for the president to make the case for the war, it's less useful - and could be harmful - for him to trumpet positive developments.

"What they realize is that you don't need to celebrate success - it speaks for itself. And if you do, you may just step on the story," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the center-left Democratic Leadership Council. Wittmann called the aircraft carrier episode "a major miscalculation that the administration is still suffering from."

Bush's "fate is tied to the fate of Iraq," Ayres said. "He doesn't need to take any credit at all if things go well there. He will get the credit."

In seeking to temper expectations of success, Bush might be ripping a page from his own political playbook, Wittmann said, which is full of examples of the president benefiting from being misjudged.

"It seems that they finally put two and two together, and realized that they have to use the same strategy in talking about the war as they do about politics," Wittman said. On the war, Bush "needs to be 'mis-underestimated.'"

The president has been quick to acknowledge language he now says he regrets using, even poking fun at himself to make his point.

During the news conference with Blair, Bush said his "bring 'em on" taunt to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and his statement that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" had been mistakes: "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."

Bush was more circumspect in assessing al-Zarqawi's death, which he said "is a severe blow to al Qaida. It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

Yesterday, Bush made it clear that he had purposely refrained from saying that al-Zarqawi's death, in and of itself, would bring about such a change.

"Whoever said it's a tide turning, and all that needs - never mind," Bush said with a smile.

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