Bush's New Tack Steers Clear of 'Stay the Course'
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006; A01
President Bush and his aides are annoyed that people keep misinterpreting his Iraq policy as "stay the course." A complete distortion, they say. "That is not a stay-the-course policy," White House press secretary Tony Snow declared yesterday.
Where would anyone have gotten that idea? Well, maybe from Bush.
"We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed," he said in Salt Lake City in August.
"We will win in Iraq so long as we stay the course," he said in Milwaukee in July.
"I saw people wondering whether the United States would have the nerve to stay the course and help them succeed," he said after returning from Baghdad in June.
But the White House is cutting and running from "stay the course." A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say. Democrats have now turned "stay the course" into an attack line in campaign commercials, and the Bush team is busy explaining that "stay the course" does not actually mean stay the course.
Instead, they have been emphasizing in recent weeks how adaptable the president's Iraq policy actually is. Bush remains steadfast about remaining in Iraq, they say, but constantly shifts tactics and methods in response to an adjusting enemy. "What you have is not 'stay the course' but in fact a study in constant motion by the administration," Snow said yesterday.
Political rhetoric, of course, is often in constant motion as well. But with midterm elections two weeks away, the Bush team is searching for a formula to address public opposition to the war, struggling to appear consistent and flexible at the same time. That was underscored by the reaction to a New York Times report that the administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to disarm militias and assume a larger security role. The White House initially called the story "inaccurate." But then White House counselor Dan Bartlett went on CNN yesterday morning to call it "a little bit overwritten" because in fact it was something the administration had been doing for months.
The president has shifted language on Iraq before. At a news conference in August, he returned to his prewar argument that Saddam Hussein harbored terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Hussein "had relations with Zarqawi," Bush said. Weeks later, the Senate intelligence committee concluded that Hussein "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye to Zarqawi" and that the U.S. government knew that before the invasion. At his next news conference, Bush was asked about that. "I never said there was an operational relationship," he said.
Bush used "stay the course" until recent weeks when it became clear that it was becoming a political problem. "The characterization of, you know, 'it's stay the course' is about a quarter right," Bush complained at an Oct. 11 news conference. " 'Stay the course' means keep doing what you're doing. My attitude is: Don't do what you're doing if it's not working -- change. 'Stay the course' also means don't leave before the job is done."
By last week, it was no longer a quarter right. "Listen, we've never been stay the course, George," he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. "We have been -- we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics. Constantly."