Politics & Policy

He’s Not for Turning

Bush makes his case on Iraq.

Forget the leaks and the speculation, President George W. Bush is not looking for a way out of the surge and the Iraq war. In a session with about ten conservative journalists Friday afternoon, a confident and determined president made it clear that he is going to see the surge through, and will rely on General David Petraeus’s advice on how to proceed come September, regardless of the political climate in Washington.

He scoffed at reports to the contrary in the press. When specifically asked about a Washington Post article this week reporting that his administration is looking for a way to draw down, President Bush said dismissively, “I didn’t read it,” and then, “there are a lot of talkers in Washington.” When it was pointed out that the sources were people in his administration, he repeated, just as dismissively, “That’s what I said, there are a lot of talkers.” He said that not everyone gets to talk to him: “I’m not on the phone chatting up with these people writing these articles, ascribing motives to me.”

The president made his intentions clear Friday afternoon. He’s not going to abandon the surge, despite all the talk of his administration being willing to move to the Iraq Study Group model of the Iraq war. He views “this period as fundamental for deciding whether or not this nation is going to be secure throughout a lot of the 21st century. And therefore when it comes to the war in Iraq, as you know, I made a decision not to leave but to put more in, and I will support our troops and support Gen. Petraeus, his plan.”

“The ideal world,” he adds, “is that there would be some bipartisan consensus at some point in time to be there for a while. Can we achieve that? I don’t know. It’s worth trying. It’s worth talking to people about it.” But referring back to his statements in support of the surge, he said, with emphasis in his voice, “It’s very important for you all to understand that that’s exactly what I mean.”

Pressed on whether the surge can be sustained despite all the difficulties, he said, “That’s the challenge, but I’m optimistic about it.” He said that back in January, “I suspect you’d be asked the same question, particularly since the outcry was quite significant.” But he went with the surge.

“How can he possibly do this,” he said, characterizing what critics of the war were thinking. “Can’t he see? Can’t he hear?” (At one point he acknowledged that these decisions aren’t easy — “You don’t know what it’s like to be commander-in-chief until you’re commander-in-chief,” he said.)

He explained “that last fall, if I had been part of this polling, if they had called upstairs and said, do you approve of Iraq I would have been on the 66 percent who said, `No I don’t approve.’ That’s why I made the decision I made. To get in a position where I would be able to say ‘Yes, I approve.’”

President Bush understands the public frustration with the war: “We put highly trained sophisticated military people in harm’s way and they battle $100 IEDs.” He worries about “exhaustion as we’re dealing with these radicals who have a lot of energy and who aren’t going to be tired.” But he said he has “tools” in the debate, including “the bully pulpit and the ability to convince the American people.” He wants both to convince them that success is still possible, and “remind my fellow citizens of what the consequences of failure will be.”

He says he has four audiences when he broadcasts his commitment to the mission in Iraq: the American public; the American military and their families; the Iraqis (“because there are a lot of people who doubt America’s resolve”); and the enemy (“the enemy thinks that we are weak — they’re sophisticated people, and they listen to the debate”). As for that last audience, “I really think the additional forces into Iraq surprised them–a lot.”

The president said it’s important to get good news that the media can’t downplay or ignore, to get “tangible evidence that even the filter can’t filter out — less violence, less [casualties].” (He jokingly said, referring to a sermon he had heard at Camp David, “we’re good news people in a bad news world.”) He noted the importance of the example of Anbar. He said that six months ago “al Qaeda was declared the winner as the result of one intelligence report.” But not now: “Today al Qaeda is the loser, the situation changed dramatically.”

He marveled at one of the media’s lines of questioning at his Thursday press conference, “They asked me yesterday ‘Are you sure it’s al Qaeda [in Iraq]?’ ‘Yeah, how do you know?’ ‘Because they swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden is how I know. Yeah, it’s al Qaeda.’ My point though to people is that it is the same crowd that killed 3,000 that is trying to drive us out of Iraq.”

Anbar isn’t as complicated as the rest of the country since there isn’t the element of sectarian conflict that there is in the rest of the country. President Bush talked of a “ground-up” approach to reconciliation. He said that security is most important, then other initiatives can come up behind, including “aggressive use of PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams] to convince local folks that life can progress even though they may have suspicion of the central government.” (Local elections is “one of the key reforms” because of the election boycotts that previously took place in the Sunni areas, he said.)

And when it comes to pouring resources into areas where the insurgency is chased out, “If the central government won’t do it, we will through PRTs.” He said he talked with leaders of some of the PRTs today, and “their question was ‘will we have the time?’“ “My answer is…I have got to get us in the position so we will have time.”

Repeatedly, the president expressed the utmost confidence in Gen. Petraeus. He expects to get a straight report from him in September and for the general’s voice to be taken seriously in the debate over the war. “The most credible person in the fight at this moment is Gen. David Petraeus,” he said. He mused that Petraeus is very effective in explaining the strategy, but that he obviously has other demands on his time in addition to the need to brief Congress and do media interviews.

President Bush rejected the notion that he will be constrained by the availability of troops come next spring and will have to draw down the surge. He said, with a pointed ending to his answer, “The key factor that I’m confident that David Petraeus is looking at as he comes back is how to achieve the initial objective he set out, which is to provide enough security for the political process to move forward. I’m sure that in the bowels of the Pentagon people are looking at troop rotations and troop movements, but that is not the primary objective of our commander on the ground–next question.”

Asked specifically if that meant that Petraeus would get the troops to continue past the spring if he needed them, he said, “We will work as hard as we can. People said we couldn’t find the troops for the last reinforcement as well,” but he added that he’s mindful of troop rotations and time in theater.

He said, eventually, “We need to be in a position that can sustain a long-term troop presence,” although that depends on “conditions on the ground.”

George W. Bush remains committed to his overarching vision of freedom, with which he opened this afternoon’s discussion: “There is such a thing as the universality of freedom. I strongly believe that Muslims desire to be free just like Methodists desire to be free.” Some may doubt that, but no one can doubt this president’s resolve in Iraq.

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