By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- With Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's speech accusing the opposition of appeasement, the stage is now set for a gloves-off September offensive by Republicans built around security and a no-compromise defense of the Iraq war.
The White House launched a series of speeches by President Bush last week centered on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It is an effort to rebuild fallen poll numbers and reshuffle the cards for the November election. Bush won't let up for 20 days.
"They are not political speeches," said the president.
Democrats are fighting back, accusing Rumsfeld of politicizing grave matters of war and peace and charging Bush with giving his Defense secretary a platform for "reckless" statements.
The new White House theme is that if Democrats gain control of Congress this fall, they will attempt to cut off funding for the war in Iraq and give the Islamic jihadists a great victory in the war on terrorism.
The Bush White House has adapted itself to the immense troubles in Iraq. Its no-retreat policy there was looking increasingly hollow.
Setbacks to Iraq forces, heavily supported by U.S. and coalition troops, continued last week with reports of a mutiny by one southern Iraqi detachment, the looting of a base that the British had turned over to Iraqi authorities and the public execution of Iraqi defenders who ran out of ammunition as they fought a well-armed sectarian militia in the town of Diwaniyah.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a disconnect between the White House and U.S. commanders in Iraq about when and whether Americans can leave Iraq.
Here, President Bush has put the clamps on any discussion of a withdrawal or a timetable as a sign of weakness and signal to the enemy that U.S. forces want to leave. At one point earlier this year, his answer was that it would not be any time in his second term, which ends in January, 2009.
Last week, according to the Associated Press, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said, "I don't have a date, but I can see over the next 12 to 18 months the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country, with very little coalition support."
That would not necessarily mean a withdrawal from Iraq, but could mean a shift of U.S. forces into large bases inside Iraq. It would probably be preparatory to moving some of them out of country or bringing them home.
Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney talked in their speeches as if any discussion of options in Iraq other than the existing policy would comfort the enemy and signal defeat. Rumsfeld compared the atmosphere of some critics of U.S. policy to the complacency toward the Nazis before World War II.
Rumsfeld's shock and awe blast aroused resentment among Democrats. That was the intention -- which was to bring attention to the boss's speech before the same American Legion audience.
Bush's approval rating was down to 33 percent in the August AP poll. Some of the party's safest Senate and House seats have gone wobbly. And the president badly needs to right both himself and his party in the two months before the election.
But he has to do this and be seen standing above the political fray on national security matters. For those who think there is some nice, clean division between politics and foreign policy, here is another example of why the two cannot be separated.
Bush has said more than once in more than one way that the reason for his presidency has been to put things right after 9/11.
The danger for him is that these arguments could be seen as nothing more than pitiable, last pleas for understanding from a fading figure about to lose control of Congress.
By turning Rumsfeld loose in the public square -- the American Legion -- to shout the underlying, unstated theme, the White House served notice it wanted to bust the bunkers of the opposition.
John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.