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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 04:10 GMT 05:10 UK
Analysis: More theatre than substance

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

President Bush came out for his rare evening press conference set on showing himself as a quietly determined leader committed to his policy in Iraq after some "difficult weeks".

President Bush during his news conference
The situation in Iraq could make Mr Bush vulnerable at the polls
He wanted to confront criticisms of his policy in Iraq and his counter-terrorism efforts before the 11 September 2001 attacks.

More theatre than substance, he offered no shocking new policy initiatives. Instead, he sought to calm the nation.

With growing unease over the direction of the action in Iraq, Mr Bush delivered a steady-as-you-go message, fearing that he stands more to lose if he wavers than if he stays the course.

Commitments

The press conference was not without some news. He will seek a new UN resolution looking for more international support in Iraq.

He also said that he was committed to providing whatever troops are needed after US Gen John Abizaid said he would need some 10,000 additional troops to help stabilise the country in face of attacks from insurgents.

"If that's what he wants, that's what he gets," Mr Bush said.

And he reiterated his commitment that the US would hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis at the end of June.

"Sovereignty involves more than a date and a ceremony, it requires Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own future," Mr Bush said.

It remains unclear how the US will do that bearing in mind that they have not announced the political institutions to be in place and the Iraqi security forces performed poorly during the recent violence.

But the president kept to a tough message on Iraq with few compromises.

At one point, he said that he instructed his commanders to make every preparation to use decisive force in Iraq if necessary.

He played the tough, decisive leader, repeating again his ideological message that it is America's duty to spread freedom in the world.

And again he stressed in the face of questions over the rationale for the war in Iraq that it was very much part of the war on terror.

Poll mobility

Politically, quite a lot is at stake for Mr Bush who is seeking re-election in November.

For those in the US who have questions about the country's direction - and polls show an increasing number of Americans do - President Bush did not give them any new answers

Poll numbers on key Bush administration policies have been down in recent weeks.

Support for the president's policy in Iraq has slipped into negative territory - only 44% of Americans now approve of his policies there, surveys suggest.

And he trails his likely Democratic opponent John Kerry by six to seven points in national polls.

However, the president's poll numbers will go up and down, depending on events on the ground in Iraq.

The recent increase in instability and the rise in American deaths will obviously drive his poll numbers down.

Having invaded Iraq, he is now very much at the mercy of events, but he believes that his greatest danger is if he is seen as flip-flopping on the issue.

In this press conference, he wanted to maintain his image as a clear, decisive leader who knows where he is going and knows where he wants to lead.

No apologies

It was a rare American presidential press conference in that every single question was on foreign policy.

Reporters did not ask him a single question on the economy, which may or may not suit Mr Bush at the moment.

And several reporters asked him if he felt that he had anything to apologise for with respect to the 11 September 2001 attacks.

But it was very clear that he did not want to offer any mea culpas, any explanations on what he did wrong. That is not what he is in the market for.

While ceding little ground, he also offered very little new.

For those in the US who have questions about the country's direction - and polls show an increasing number of Americans do - President Bush did not give them any new answers.




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