We face an added challenge in the months ahead: The campaign season will soon be upon us -- and that means our nation must carry on this war in an election year. There is a vigorous debate about the war in Iraq today, and we should not fear the debate. It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly -- even in times of war. Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate -- and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas.
The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.
When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale. In a time of war, we have a responsibility to show that whatever our political differences at home, our nation is united and determined to prevail. And we have a responsibility to our men and women in uniform -- who deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and in bad days -- and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory.
We also have an opportunity this year to show the Iraqi people what responsible debate in a democracy looks like. In a free society, there is only one check on political speech -- and that's the judgment of the people. So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account, and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy -- not comfort to our adversaries.
Note the juxtaposition Bush makes between "a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong" and "defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right." So people who think the war is doomed to fail are disloyal? Similarly, at the end of the passage, Bush suggests that debate about the war hurts troop morale and that questioning of the war brings "comfort to our adversaries." In short, he claims that "It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly -- even in times of war," but then attempts to rule out as "irresponsible" any debate that questions the war he initiated.
Isn't our democracy strong enough to survive people questioning the war? Isn't that the whole point of democracy?
(Postscript: It's also disturbing that the print version of the New York Times report on Bush's speech is headlined "In Strong Words, Bush Defines Terms of Debate on Iraq." Says who? Apparently someone realized that the headline implicitly endorsed Bush's attack on dissent because the online headline now reads "In Strong Words, Bush Tries to Redirect Debate on Iraq.")
Update 1/12: During a speech in Kentucky, Bush said that "one way people can help [in the war on terror] as we're coming down the pike in the 2006 elections, is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm's way, and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy." How can rhetoric weaken an enemy? And it's silly to suggest that people can help the war on terror by what they say in domestic political debate. Does Bush think Al Qaeda is watching "Meet the Press" every week? Listening to C-SPAN call-ins?