White House Reviews Iraq Strategy
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
White House officials held talks last week about how to respond to increasing pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill for the end of the war in Iraq. The discussions were first reported by the New York Times and show administration officials, including the new secretary of defense, bringing a less ideological, more pragmatic approach to shaping U.S. policy in Iraq.
NPR news analyst Juan Williams joins us to examine the White House's deliberations. Good morning, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Is this an internal White House debate, strictly internal about U.S. policy in Iraq, and is it a debate?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, White House officials say it's not a debate but a discussion. No one is saying at the White House, no one is saying pull out the troops now. The agenda for their talks is to figure out how to get in front of what is clearly a rising wave of voices, particularly the GOP senators, as we just heard from Guy Raz, calling for a new strategy in Iraq.
At the heart of the discussion was a political roundtable which included Josh Bolten, the chief of staff; Karl Rove, the top political adviser to President Bush; Ed Gillespie, the new communications director; Bob Gates, the new defense secretary; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser.
You'll notice I didn't mentioned Vice President Cheney. He was not in the discussion. And according to people I've spoken with, the tone of the discussion was very different from past talks. Until recently the focus at the White House was on hammering home that the president is committed to staying the course.
This time the focus was on getting out the message that the White House is committed to a smaller force on the ground, to pulling back American troops, and specifically limiting the fight to al-Qaida, not policing Baghdad or getting involved in a civil war.
MONTAGNE: And Juan, by next Sunday the administration has to issue a report on the progress the Iraqi government is making in meeting political, economic and military benchmarks, or progress. Will that add to the pressure on the Bush White House?
WILLIAMS: It has already, Renee. Last night White House officials said to expect the president to try to frame this report in a speech by Thursday or Friday of this week. The president will emphasize that the last units added as part of the recent surge and the escalation of U.S. troops strength have only been in place for two weeks.
And you know, the point they're going to make it is that the first of the 21,500 troops did hit the ground in January; we now have 159,000 people there. But the president will ask for more time to look at the results of having the full force on the ground. And he will point to military leaders, specifically General David Petraeus, as the man who will have the final say in September when he reports on progress in Iraq.
They're trying to slow down the political clock here. They don't want, as one person put it, July to become September. So the president will say that Congress asked for the report and they should wait to get it in September. With defense appropriation talks for next year now taking place on Capitol Hill, though, the president's aim is to buy time with the Senate, now through the August recess, and keep the focus on the September report.
MONTAGNE: And is there any sense in which the White House could be said to be repudiating or aiming at repudiating the troop surge?
WILLIAMS: That's a good question, Renee. No, but it is fair to say that they are more open than ever to acknowledging failure in Iraq - the slow political evolution under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - and a willingness now to speak publicly. This is on the president's part, you will hear it later this week when he addresses this - to speak publicly the sacrifice that American troops, particularly the more than 3,600 who have died since the war started now - nearly five years ago, Renee, in March of '03.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Juan.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving eyes the political shifts in the Senate over Iraq in his Watching Washington column at npr.org.
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