WASHINGTON -- In perhaps his most aggressive speech since winning reelection, President Bush yesterday attacked Democrats for suggesting that he misled the nation on intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq, saying that such criticism sends the ''wrong signal" to American forces, emboldens the nation's enemies, and tries to ''rewrite the history of how that war began."
Speaking at an Army base near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Bush noted that the same critics who say he manipulated intelligence to justify the invasion -- including Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat whom Bush defeated for the presidency last year -- were also convinced that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat who had to be dealt with through military force.
''While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," Bush said in a speech commemorating Veterans Day. ''The stakes in the global war on terror are too high -- and the national interest is too important -- for politicians to throw out false charges. These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."
Though he'd delivered several major speeches about the war since the 2004 election, Bush came out swinging this time, taking on his critics with stinging charges reminiscent of the partisan campaign speeches that helped him win a second term. The aggressive tone seemed designed to turn the tables on critics in Congress who have turned the spotlight on the faulty intelligence the White House used to make its case for war.
But Democrats struck back, calling the speech the desperate act of a weakened president defending an unpopular war.
''The president resorted to his old playbook of discredited rhetoric about the war on terror and political attacks as his own political fortunes and credibility diminish," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said after the speech.
The White House is launching its campaign to rebuild support for the war at a tenuous time for Bush's presidency. Soaring gas prices and a botched response to Hurricane Katrina have damaged his popularity at the same time that a top administration official is under indictment. Bush's GOP allies in Congress, meanwhile, have shown deep divisions, and the party discipline that has defined the recent years of Republican control in Washington has shown signs of breaking down.
In addition, there are signs that Bush's handling of foreign affairs and the war on terrorism -- long the president's pillar of support -- has cost him the trust of an increasing number of Americans. As Associated Press-Ipsos poll released yesterday indicated that his approval rating is now at 37 percent, and the Iraq war is the most frequently mentioned reason for misgivings about the president's performance.
With uniformed troops as his backdrop, Bush pointedly countered Kerry in public for the first time since the two men vied for the presidency last year. Quoting from a 2002 speech by Kerry, Bush said, ''Many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: 'When I vote to give the president of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security.' "
In response, Kerry accused the president of dishonoring veterans ''by playing the politics of fear and smear on Veterans Day." He said he voted for the war based on contentions by an administration that turned out to have engaged in ''cherry-picking intelligence and stretching the truth beyond recognition."
''Instead of trying to salvage his slumping political fortunes, the commander-in-chief should honor our men and women in uniform with a clear strategy for success in Iraq," Kerry said in a written statement. ''But this administration abandoned that path long ago, and our troops have paid the price for it."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a leading critic of the war, yesterday said Bush's speech reverted ''to the same manipulation of facts to justify a war we never should have fought."
He cited a series of White House statements that implied a link between Iraq and Qaeda and suggested that Iraq clearly possessed weapons of mass destruction, when subsequent information has failed to back up those assertions.
''It's deeply regrettable that the president is using Veterans Day as a campaign-like attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War," said Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
But the White House took the rare step of issuing a statement directly responding to Kennedy's criticism, in an indication of the stakes for Bush.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan noted that Kennedy voted against the first Gulf War in 1991 in addition to the 2002 invasion. ''Senator Kennedy has found more time to say negative things about President Bush than he ever did about Saddam Hussein," McClellan said. ''If America were to follow Senator Kennedy's foreign policy, Saddam Hussein would not only still be in power, he would be oppressing and occupying Kuwait."
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, hammered Bush's tough message home last night with a speech in Indiana, where he quoted Democrats from former president Bill Clinton to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean agreeing with the White House that Iraq was a threat to the United States. ''This kind of political double-speak sends exactly the wrong message to our troops, to the Iraqis, and to our terrorist enemies," Mehlman was to say, according to an advance copy of his speech.
Last month, as the number of US military deaths surged past 2,000 and as a probe into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to reporters continued to make headlines, Democrats began to refocus on the Bush administration's push for war. In a bold move that angered and embarrassed Republicans, Senate Democrats shut down all legislative business for several hours last week until Republicans promised to launch a long-stalled investigation into how the administration used intelligence to justify the invasion.
Bush has had to defend his foreign policy from fellow Republicans as well. On Thursday, Senator John McCain Republican of Arizona, widely considered a 2008 presidential contender, delivered a speech in Washington in which he spoke of ''an undeniable sense that things are slipping in Iraq."
In a story published yesterday, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, told the Omaha World-Herald that ''there are very legitimate and critical questions that need to be answered" regarding the administration's use of intelligence in the run-up to war.
Bush is seeking to reestablish his credibility on the war by defending his initial decision to invade Iraq and portraying his critics as naysayers who are harming the war effort. In the speech, he asserted that members of Congress had access to the ''same intelligence" as the administration and decided that Iraq was a threat. And he contended that a bipartisan Senate investigation ''found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."
But Democrats noted that lawmakers do not get to see intelligence reports until after they've passed through the White House first. And Democrats have contended for more than a year that an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence did not look at the pressure imposed on intelligence analysts in the run-up to war.