Two weeks before receiving a major assessment of the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush gave a ringing defense of the war effort Tuesday in a speech that sounded like he had already made up his mind to stay and fight. Bush hailed security gains, defended middling progress by Iraqi leaders and argued that the future of the entire Middle East would rise or fall on the outcome. "It's going to take time for the recent progress we have seen in security to translate into political progress," Bush told a friendly audience at the American Legion's national convention. "Leaders in Washington need to look for ways to help our Iraqi allies succeed, not excuses for abandoning them." Bush argued that withdrawing American forces would allow the Middle East to be taken over by extremists and put the security of the United States in jeopardy. By contrast, he said, continuing to fight is "the most important and immediate way" to put the strategic, struggling region on a path to democracy, economic expansion and stability that is inhospitable to terrorists.