President using helicopter to enter, leave Texas ranch to avoid confrontation
Washington — As the Iraq war continues to produce growing U.S. casualties and shrinking public support, President George W. Bush was forced yesterday to confront the protest of a grieving mother of a soldier killed in the war. But he still won’t meet her.
As Cindy Sheehan camped out on a road leading to Mr. Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Tex., for the sixth consecutive day, insisting she wants to speak to the President personally, Mr. Bush said he sympathizes with her plight, but rejected her call to pull the troops out of Iraq.
Ms. Sheehan’s 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed in an ambush in Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling Shia neighbourhood, last year, just five days after he arrived in Iraq.
“I begged him not to go,” says Ms. Sheehan, 48, who travelled from her home in California to try to speak with Mr. Bush as he spends his summer vacation at his Prairie Chapel Ranch. “I said, ‘I’ll take you to Canada,’ but he said, ‘Mom, I have to go. It’s my duty. My buddies are going.’
“I don’t believe his phony excuses for the war,” Ms. Sheehan has said of the President. She said she believes the war is really about oil and making Mr. Bush’s friends richer. “I want him to tell me why my son died.”
Anti-war activists are converging on Crawford, eager to seize on Ms. Sheehan’s newfound notoriety and telegenic appeal to get their message across.
On Saturday, Mr. Bush dispatched deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin to meet with her to try to defuse the situation, but it just gave Ms. Sheehan more attention.
Mr. Hadley said that Mr. Bush is very sensitive to the losses being sustained by military families, pointing out that he has already met privately with the families of more than 200 of the fallen.
“He believes that they are engaged in a noble cause and it’s terribly important for the safety and security of our country. And he respects her views, but respectfully disagrees.”
Yesterday, Mr. Bush felt obliged to respond himself. “She feels strongly about her position and she has every right in the world to say what she believes,” Mr. Bush told a news conference. “And I thought long and hard about her position. I’ve heard her position from others, which is: Get out of Iraq now. And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so.”
Mr. Bush said he grieves for every death in Iraq. “It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one. I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place.”
Yet there was no sign Mr. Bush intends to meet Ms. Sheehan. In fact, there were reports he is travelling solely by helicopter when he leaves the ranch in an effort to avoid racing past the protester in a limousine.
“The President says he feels compassion for me,” Ms. Sheehan said, “but the best way to show that compassion is by meeting with me and the other mothers and families who are here.
“All we’re asking is that he sacrifice an hour out of his five-week vacation to talk to us before the next mother loses her son in Iraq.”
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has studied Mr. Bush’s rise, said: “For him, meeting this woman face to face would be blinking. His whole game is to be confident and to appear never to doubt and never to waiver. It’s this idea of determination.”
And unlike government leaders in a parliamentary system who are challenged directly by their political opponents, Mr. Bush can easily shelter himself from such confrontations.
“He would not trust himself in a face-to-face meeting and neither would his staff. These guys like control,” said Prof. Jillson, who added that Ms. Sheehan’s protest in itself may not be that significant but it comes at a time when many Americans are reconsidering their views of the Iraq war.
Approval of Mr. Bush’s handling of the conflict has dropped to as little as 34 per cent of people surveyed, according to a recent poll conducted for Newsweek magazine.
But only 33 per cent of Americans say the solution is withdrawing all troops, according to a recent Gallup Poll. Another 23 per cent say some of the troops should be withdrawn while 41 per cent say troop levels should remain the same or be increased.
Ms. Sheehan’s protest comes at a particularly bloody time for U.S. troops in the war as roadside bombs aimed at patrolling soldiers have become increasingly sophisticated and lethal. According to Associated Press, at least 1,841 American troops have died in the war since March, 2003, including 37 since the beginning of August.
At his news conference, Mr. Bush said he strongly disagrees with those calling for troop withdrawal. “Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy ….. [that] the United States is weak and all we’ve got to do is intimidate and they’ll leave.”