Bush told his Republican Party nominating convention last night that the United States has an obligation to press for opening Mideast societies. He referred to the "transformational power of liberty."
"I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty," Bush said. "I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world."
Bush devoted about half of his acceptance speech to foreign policy, centering on the war on terror and the Middle East democracy initiative. He is in a tight race with Democratic challenger John Kerry and polls show Bush is vulnerable on the issue of Iraq, where nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died since the combat phase began 18 months ago.
There have been daily protests in New York City against his presidency, including an antiwar rally 29 August that attracted more than 125,000 people.
Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq. He called it his toughest decision in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks but said it was forced on him by Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.
"I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office -- a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make," Bush said. "Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."
Iraq has nationwide elections due in January and Afghanistan's presidential elections are set for October, but security concerns threaten both. Bush vowed not to remove U.S. troops from either country until democratic reforms are entrenched.
"Our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is clear: We will help new leaders to train their armies, and move toward elections, and get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible," Bush said. "And then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned."
The president said the United States has been helped by a coalition of 40 states in Afghanistan and 30 states in Iraq. He singled out the support of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
Earlier in the evening, the commander of the U.S. forces in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired General Tommy Franks, told the convention he decided to back Bush because of the resolve he has shown as commander in chief. Franks said he was especially gratified to help restore hope to Afghans and Iraqis.
"In Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism and tyranny are being replaced by freedom, hope, opportunity," Franks said. "I, for one, am proud that my country, the United States of America, has given 50 million people a chance."
Bush cited the importance that success in Iraq would have on Palestinian leaders seeking to establish an independent state alongside Israel.
He did not refer to specific steps in his Mideast democracy initiative, nor did he single out other countries in the region for reform. But he indicated countries where he said U.S. policies are working.
"Today, the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror, Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders, Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests, Libya is dismantling its weapons programs, the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom, and more than three-quarters of Al-Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed," Bush said.
After four days of Republican tributes to his resolve, Bush said he would continue to press to make the world safer.
"I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people," Bush said "If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."
Earlier in the day, Senator Kerry launched a tough response to the criticisms leveled against him during the Republican convention. He reasserted that the Bush administration misled the country into waging war on Iraq.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, criticized Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for refusing to serve in Vietnam. He said Bush was "unfit" to lead the nation because of Iraq and his record on health care, jobs, and energy issues.
Bush and Kerry have three debates scheduled before the 2 November elections.