President Bush started his first Rhode Island visit with, "Thanks for coming by," and ended an hour later with, "Look, I gotta go."
But between his folksy greetings Thursday at the U.S. Naval War College and a receptive audience of high military achievement -- "the best and the brightest," he called them -- the president passionately justified his latest Iraq war strategies.
Introduced by Republican Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, who praised his "courage, leadership and determination," Bush spoke during the 50th anniversary of the Naval Command College -- one of the institute's five academic colleges -- which trains selected senior international Navy officers in military tactics and strategy.
The president's speech was heard by 230 international alumni and their families from 41 countries as invited guests, and about 450 others connected with the college.
At a time his party leaders increasingly have joined a wider chorus calling for troop withdrawals, Bush reiterated that Iraq is "the major battleground" in the larger war against violent Islamic extremists threatening America.
In tones that were alternately tenacious, strident, emotional and philosophical, Bush made his latest case for connecting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans to al-Qaida's current role in Iraq and the potential domination of terrorism in the Middle East.
"The stakes are high," Bush said several times as he has many times the past six years.
"Al-Qaida's strategy is to use human beings as bombs to create grisly images for the world to see. They understand that sensational images are the best way to overwhelm the quiet progress on the ground," he said.
Bush said the Iraq election of 2005 -- with 12 million participants -- was "an astonishing moment for the Middle East. And I, frankly, wasn't surprised because I believe in the universality of freedom. I believe everybody wants to be free. That's what I believe," Bush said to sustained applause.
In 2006, when the holy site Golden Mosque was blown up, he placed responsibility upon al-Qaida, setting off a spiral of sectarian killings.
One of many instances of civilian progress Bush cited was the "different response" earlier this month when an attack upon towers of the same mosque "had all the hallmarks of al-Qaida."
But Iraqi leaders united to inhibit a reprisal, Bush said, stating they are starting to recognize al-Qaida as "the main enemy."
"They're responsible for the sensational killing on U.S. soil, and they're responsible for the sensational killings in Iraq," Bush said, a connection that's brought repeated repudiation from war critics.
"The new strategy is different," he said, delivering examples of the deployment of additional troops this year in "a wider offensive called Operation Phantom Thunder" and the progress he sees around Baghdad and Anbar province.
Under newly appointed General David Petraeus, Bush said the military's "top priority must be to help the Iraqi government and its security forces protect their population from attack -- especially in Baghdad."
Using Israel as a model, he said the government needs to "function as a democracy even amid violence."
While speaking generally about "pressing Iraqis to keep their commitments," Bush said, "We must keep in mind that these benchmarks are aimed at improving life for the Iraqi people -- and that is the standard by which they should be judged."
He said if terrorists prevail, "the consequences for America and the Middle East would be disastrous. In Iraq, sectarian violence would multiply on a horrific scale."
He said for "the millions of moms and dads in the Middle East who want a future of dignity and peace," America needs to "help them defeat a common enemy."
The president choked up when he gave a prime example of the country's military men and women who volunteer and say, "I want to serve in the face of danger."
His example was a soldier from Ohio who began training during his senior year of high school.
"Earlier this month, he was killed," Bush said. "Here's what his dad said: 'He felt the war was justified and wanted to be there. ... I am proud of him and the job he is doing.'"
"And so am I," Bush said emotionally.
While Bush took a few questions, the supportive audience stirred when a woman who'd returned from a week at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania praised her experience but questioned the president's leadership.
"You said that you consult with the military. With all due respect, sir, how much do you really listen and follow them?" she asked.
"Yes, a lot. I don't see how you can be commander-in-chief of a well-motivated military without listening carefully to the advice of your commanders," Bush said. "My answer is it all depends on what David Petraeus says.
"... I had a decision to make: More troops to secure Baghdad and Anbar, or pull back and hope for the best. I made a decision to put more troops in. That was in close consultation with the Pentagon and, in particular, with the, you know, the folks who have been charged with operations in Baghdad."
E-mail Michael Holtzman of The Herald News (Fall River, Mass.) at email@example.com.