Colorado Springs, Colo — President Bush said Wednesday that rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan as the wars rage on is proving difficult and "we're learning as we go."
The president harkened back to the patriotic sacrifice of World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, in again suggesting the country must hold firm and not lose its nerve.
"After World War II, we helped Germany and Japan build free societies and strong economies," Bush said. "These efforts took time and patience, and as a result, Germany and Japan grew in freedom and prosperity. Germany and Japan, once mortal enemies, are now allies of the United States. And people across the world have reaped the benefits."
The president spoke on a day intended solely for celebration, the commencement for more than 1,000 graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Yet Bush's words were vastly overshadowed by those of the man who once spoke for him, Scott McClellan, the former press secretary. Stunning the White House, McClellan wrote in a new book that Bush favored propaganda over honesty in selling the war to the public.
McClellan's scathing account, and the dominant news coverage it received, put Bush's latest defense of war in a new context.
At a cold, drizzly football-stadium ceremony, Bush said the United States has an obligation to stick with Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the lesson is rooted in history.
The president acknowledged one of the many differences between the global conflict six decades ago and the ones that began under his watch: today's wars are not over.
"In Germany and Japan, the work of rebuilding took place in relative quiet," Bush said. "Today we're helping emerging democracies rebuild under fire from terrorist networks and state sponsors of terror. This is a difficult and unprecedented task, and we're learning as we go."
For example, he said, the U.S. learned the hard way that the newly liberated people in Iraq could not make progress unless they felt reasonably secure.
Bush said his own country must not lose resolve. He said terrorist enemies, using the media and the never-ending news cycle, attack innocent people to weaken American resolve.
"We need to recognize that the only way that America can lose the war on terror is if we defeat ourselves," Bush said.
The shadow cast by McClellan's book followed Bush.
McClellan wrote that the Bush White House made "a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed" in the run-up to war. And he called the Iraq war a "serious strategic blunder."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that McClellan's account was puzzling and sad, and that Bush had more important matters than commenting on books by former staffers.
At least 4,085 U.S. military members have died in the Iraq war. More than 430 members of the U.S. military have died as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department.
Bush noted it was his last military academy commencement speech, and he seemed to savor it. He personally congratulated each cadet as cheers bounded across the stadium.
History and war experts warn that Bush has at times oversimplified the comparison between postwar efforts in Japan and Germany and what's unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the end of World War II, enemies formally surrendered, hostilities ended, basic security existed, and local populations essentially accepted occupation and reconstruction.
Experts say those conditions don't exist in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The postwar analogy between World War II and today is "patently false," said Sam Brannen, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The stateless enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq "are not accountable to the same command-and-control structures that existed in Japan and Germany," he said.
Bush, linking the wars now and then, did acknowledge differences.
"Our adversaries did not lay down their arms after the regime had been removed," he said of today's conflicts. "Instead, they blended into the civilian population and ... continued the fight through suicide bombings and attacks on innocent people. In the 21st century, this nation must be prepared to fight this new kind of warfare."
The speech was the main official business in a Western trip mostly designed for political fundraising. After the commencement, Bush headed to Utah for two closed fundraisers for John McCain, the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Some of the proceeds will help other GOP candidates, too.