Mission control: Bush is steadfast The President expresses no doubts and no regrets on Iraq. Critics, however, see stubbornness.

Posted: April 18, 2004

WASHINGTON — These are tough times for President Bush, and Americans are getting another chance to see how their president deals with adversity.

Faced with a deadly insurrection in Iraq and a barrage of questions about his approach to terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001, Bush has responded with characteristic confidence that he's on the right course. There's no hint of self-doubt and no acknowledgment of any shortcomings.

His steadfastness - admired by supporters and dismissed as blind stubbornness by critics - underscores the extent to which he views himself as a man on a mission. It's no accident that he often refers to a higher power and asserts that the nation "has been called" to spread freedom around the world.

"We're changing the world," he said at his nationally televised news conference Tuesday night. "And the world will be better off and America will be more secure as a result of the actions we're taking."

The outcome of his bold gamble is far from clear. And the President is sure to face more questions in the days ahead about the reasons for the Iraq war and his prewar planning.

Plan of Attack, a new book by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward set for release next week, says Bush quietly ordered a war plan for Iraq in November 2001, when the war in Afghanistan was still under way and long before he acknowledged any intention of invading Iraq.

Similar to Ike and Reagan

Presidential scholars say it's too early to render a judgment on Bush's leadership, but his approach to the job most closely resembles those of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Both were known to delegate, setting a broad vision for their administrations and leaving the details to others.

"He certainly is a delegator. That's his core view of management: Make the big decisions and give people their marching orders," said George Edwards 3d, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

Five weeks before Sept. 11, Bush took no action after being told in a top-secret briefing that the FBI was conducting as many as 70 investigations related to possible terrorist attacks on the United States. As it turned out, the number was inflated, and investigators failed to pull together clues that might have helped uncover the plot to fly aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In Iraq, Bush relied on his military advisers to tell him whether they needed more troops, ignoring calls for reinforcements by retired and active-duty officers. In an abrupt about-face, the Pentagon announced Thursday that 20,000 troops would not be allowed to come home as planned this summer.

Difference after 9/11

Experts in presidential leadership see a big difference between Bush's approach to terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks and his handling of war in Iraq.

In Iraq, the mission and the chain of command are clear, so there is less need for presidential involvement. Battling terrorism, especially before the Sept. 11 attacks, is a much more ambiguous undertaking, pitting multiple government agencies against a highly elusive target.

"That requires a president to do more, to be more involved, because it's not exactly clear what you have to do," Edwards said. "You really have to be doing a lot of follow-up."

Presidential historian James McGregor Burns said Bush seemed to have overestimated the government's ability to deal with terrorism in the months before Sept. 11. He said he was "comforted" to learn in the Aug. 6 briefing that the FBI was on the case. The briefing followed a dramatic spike in intelligence pointing to the possibility of a devastating terrorist attack.

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has been in and out of government since the 1950s, said Bush's failure to prod the FBI was typical of a first-year president unfamiliar with the ways of the federal bureaucracy. "It isn't surprising to me that, at that stage, they relied on the information they were given and expected things to get done," he said. "By the sixth year of a presidency, they don't think like that at all."

Presidential historians said it also was not surprising that Bush has offered no apologies for any government missteps before Sept. 11 or for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As a rule, being president means never having to say you're sorry.

Franklin Roosevelt never apologized for lapses before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lyndon Johnson never apologized for Vietnam. Richard Nixon never apologized for Watergate.

Administration officials say Bush has nothing to apologize for but concede that he will have to continue to explain the Iraq war to an increasingly skeptical public. A new poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey, a project of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that only 43 percent of Americans think the war was worth it, down from 49 percent in March.

The Gallup organization reports similar results, as well as a small but growing number of Americans - 28 percent in the latest poll, in early April - who want to pull troops out.

Contact reporter Ron Hutcheson at 202-383-6101 or rhutcheson@krwashington.com.

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