WASHINGTON - In defense of his war policy, President Bush will highlight U.S. efforts to help Iraqis overhaul their economy and rebuild their shattered infrastructure - an endeavor continually undermined by unrelenting violence.
Bush's speech Wednesday, to focus on economic progress in Iraq, will be the second in a series of addresses to answer criticism and questions about U.S. presence in Iraq. The administration has cited increases in Iraq's gross domestic product, work to boost oil production, the creation of new businesses and an explosion of cell phones as evidence of economic progress.
In response, Senate Democrats are issuing a report Wednesday saying the U.S. faces a reconstruction gap in Iraq. While the Bush administration cites the number of new schools built, roads paved and businesses created, "the simple fact is that basic needs - jobs, essential services, health care - remain unmet," the Democrats' report says.
As well as trumpeting progress, Bush, in a speech hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, also will detail remaining challenges on the economic front. The Bush administration says these include:
The speeches by Bush, who is shouldering the lowest job approval rating of his presidency, are part of a public relations campaign to respond to political pressure that has mounted as U.S. military deaths in the war have risen above 2,100. He and other administration officials are working to shore up slumping public support for the war in the run-up to the Dec. 15 vote in Iraq to create a democratically elected government that will run the country for the next four years.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicted Tuesday that the elections will spawn increased violence, and also trigger a reorganization within Iraqi ministries.
"It suggests that the coming period will be a difficult one," Rumsfeld said at a meeting in Washington of Southeastern Europe defense ministers. "I don't think any country's ever gone from a repressive, dictatorial regime to a democratic system and a freer economic and freer political system on a nice smooth, steady path. It's a tough business. And it'll take some time, and there'll be two steps forward and a half a step back from time to time."
At Fort Drum, N.Y., on Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said terrorists can win in Iraq only "if we lose our nerve and abandon our mission." He rejected calls for a speedy drawdown of troops.
Critics of the administration's reconstruction strategy in Iraq say not enough has been done in the nearly three years since the U.S.-led invasion to reduce unemployment, step up oil production and keep the lights on.
"There's no doubt there are a lot of good things happening economically, but to conclude, therefore, that the economy is fundamentally healthy or that it's improving fast enough to really help us with the war, I think goes too far," said Michael O'Hanlon, foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington.
Several Democrats sent Bush a letter saying his speech should include "a full and complete strategy for success with the political, economic and military benchmarks by which to measure the progress."
The administration trumpeted progress on the economic front in a 35-page booklet titled "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" that it released a week ago when the president gave the first speech of the series at the U.S. Naval Academy. There, he highlighted progress in training Iraqi army and police forces. Democrats dismissed his remarks as a stay-the-course speech with no real strategy for success.
According to the White House strategy report, oil production increased last year to 2.25 million barrels a day from an average of 1.58 million barrels a day the year before.
Some Iraqi analysts in Washington say, however, it's misleading to use the 2003 figure of 1.58 million barrels because Iraqi oil production was dramatically curtailed that year, which included the U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath. They favor using a baseline figure of about 2 million barrels a day, which means oil production, curbed by decaying infrastructure and frequent militant attacks on pipelines and refineries, has remained flat.
"They are way off of their original projections" for where oil production would be now, said Rick Barton, an expert on Iraqi reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's basically gone nowhere in the entire time we've been there. Of course, they haven't been able to protect the pipelines. You just can't be rebuilding a country during an active war."