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Bush changes strategy with $87bn gamble
President calls for international community to take greater share of burden as he asks Congress for huge sum to aid occupation
Oliver Burkeman and Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Tuesday September 9, 2003
The White House was facing intense criticism at home and a tepid response abroad yesterday as George Bush attempted to recast the occupation of Iraq as a global struggle requiring the support of the entire international community and a huge injection of cash.
The president put his domestic popularity on the line in an address calling for an $87bn (｣55bn) increase in US spending on Iraq and Afghanistan that would double the cost of the Iraqi operation.
In perhaps his most humbling moment since the campaign began, he also used the nationally televised address on Sunday night to call for other countries to take on a greater share of the burden.
"Terrorists in Iraq have attacked representatives of the civilised world, and opposing them must be the cause of the civilised world," he said.
But it was unclear whether the change in strategy would pay off. Democrats in Washington, bolstered by weekend polls showing the president's approval ratings returning to pre-9/11 levels, accused Mr Bush of misleading the American people. And while Britain announced a new commitment of troops - the result of a review unconnected to the president's speech - several countries said they would wait for a UN resolution first.
The $87bn that Mr Bush will ask Congress to authorise "amounts to more than 10 times more than the United States has ever spent in a year in any country," Paul Bremer, head of the coalition provisional authority, said in Iraq yesterday.
"And it's a clear, dramatic illustration of the fact that the American people are going to finish the job we started when we liberated Iraq some four months ago."
The request would raise the cost of the Iraq war to the US to $150bn, dwarfing the $9bn US contribution to the first 1991 Gulf war, and pushing the country's budget deficit beyond half a trillion dollars. Members of Congress, though likely to authorise the funds, are expected to demand that Mr Bush outline an exit strategy for US troops first.
The president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, defended the sum, arguing that if Iraq were stabilised, "those costs will be won back over and over again." Echoing Mr Bush's speech, she told CBS television that Iraq was the main battlefield in the campaign against terror.
"What we are now seeing is a central battle in the war on terrorism, and these terrorists know it. That is why they are going to Iraq."
Internationally, though, while France and Australia praised the president's appeal to the world community, neither announced plans to review their decision not to send peacekeeping forces. Greece and India said they would wait for a UN decision.
Germany, a longtime opponent of the war, still had "no plans for military engagement" in Iraq, a spokesman said.
The unprecedented size of the presidential request for funding suggests that Washington may already be resigned to receiving little financial aid from other countries, said Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador and now a professor at the National Defence University in Washington.
"The reality is that nobody is going to help the United States with significant financial resources, with the obvious exception of Britain," he said.
Democratic presidential hopefuls, sensing a public mood in which criticism of White House policy in Iraq is no longer vehemently condemned as inherently unpatriotic, wasted no time in attacking Mr Bush's speech.
The $87bn figure, Bob Graham, a Florida senator, told CNN, was "more than the federal government will spend on education this year," while Representative Dick Gephardt said the speech showed that "the president has recognised that he has been going down the wrong path".
Howard Dean, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, compared the Iraq conflict to Vietnam, accusing the government of "feeding misinformation to the American people in order to justify an enormous commitment of US troops".
He added: "A 15-minute speech does not make up for 15 months of misleading the American people on why we should go to war against Iraq, or 15 weeks of mismanaging the reconstruction effort since we have been there."
Judith Kipper, an expert on the region at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Bush's address had changed the focus of American engagement, redefining Iraq as a danger not because of weapons of mass destruction, or Saddam Hussein's former regime, but because it was the centre of the war on terrorism. That meant the White House could now argue that "we need help".
The question, she said, "is whether France, Germany and the other Europeans are going to act like grown-ups. The international community is severely broken at the moment, and we need to stick together."
The way the US had handled the occupation of Iraq meant that claims of a terrorism problem connected to Iraq had become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Ms Kipper argued. "Iraq is now a global threat. It was not before. But it is now."