WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush made a solemn pilgrimage on Monday to the graveyard of U.S. war dead and rejected “fatalists or cynics” who doubt the wisdom of pursuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ceremonial cannon blasts punctuated the president’s arrival at Arlington National Cemetery for the annual Memorial Day holiday, which was tempered this year by the deaths of more than 100 Americans in Iraq in May alone, one of the bloodiest months of the war.
Bush’s visit to Arlington came at a time when America’s assessment of the Iraq war has never been worse. A poll by CBS News and The New York Times released last week said 76 percent of Americans believe the war is going somewhat or very badly.
Bush praised the number of Americans still signing up to join the U.S. armed forces despite the ongoing wars and said 174 Marines recently asked to have their enlistments extended.
“Those who serve are not fatalists or cynics. They know that one day this war will end, as all wars do. Our duty is to ensure that its outcome justifies the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in it,” Bush said.
American flags dotted many of the thousands of white gravestones. Family members of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the guests inside the amphitheater at the cemetery on a warm, humid day.
“From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled, where our nation is more secure from attack and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it,” Bush said.
The unpopular nature of the Iraq war was alluded to by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in his remarks to the crowd.
“The commander-in-chief bears the lonely, sometimes unpopular, but ultimate responsibility to preserve freedom through generations,” he said.
On the motorcade route to Arlington, a lone protester held up a sign that said, “Bring the Troops Home.”
Bush last week won a bruising battle with the Democrats who control the U.S. Congress by obtaining their agreement to appropriate an additional $100 billion to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars without including a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq.
But Democrats are vowing to keep up the pressure to end U.S. involvement in what they consider a civil war. There has been renewed talk of trying to end the 2002 congressional authorization that Bush used to launch the war in 2003.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is to report in September on the effects of a 30,000-troop buildup aimed at securing Baghdad. Some Republican lawmakers have told Bush if significant progress in Iraq is not made by September it will be time to start bringing some troops home.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that the administration was developing concepts in which U.S. combat forces would be reduced to around 100,000 by the middle of the 2008 presidential election year from close to 150,000 now.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not comment substantively on the report as he made the rounds of morning television shows.
“From the standpoint of the U.S. military, we need to stay focused on the mission we’ve been asked to perform and the resources it will take to perform that mission,” Pace told the Fox News Channel.