Bush: No Moves on Iraq Until September
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The report the White House sent to Congress today gives, at best, mixed reviews of how the Iraqi government has been performing. Congress asked President Bush to give updates on 18 benchmarks dealing with security, political reform and other areas. The White House could not say any of the benchmarks were met, though the report says Iraqi leaders are making progress in eight of the areas.
In a few minutes, we'll hear how lawmakers in Congress are reacting, but first, to the White House where President Bush held a news conference to talk about the report and Iraq in general.
Here's NPR's David Greene.
DAVID GREENE: The president was giving his first press conference in a newly refurbished White House Briefing Room. And to mark the occasion, he called first on the veteran of the press corps, Helen Thomas.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: And now I'll be glad to answer a few questions, starting with Ms. Thomas.
GREENE: She got things started by reminding President Bush that he was the one who started the war in Iraq.
Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Columnist, Hearst Newspapers; Member, White House Press Corps): You can end it alone today.
GREENE: Mr. Bush often gets testy when his whole war policy is called into question, but not today.
Pres. BUSH: Iraq is obviously - Helen has got the attention the American people, as she should. This is a difficult war. It's a tough war. But as I have consistently stated throughout this presidency, it is this is a necessary war to secure our peace.
GREENE: But with a new White House report landing on Capitol Hill, there are now more questions about how the war is going and especially whether the Iraqi government is ever going to be organized enough to secure its own country. Mr. Bush said Iraqi leaders got low marks for solving their political differences, but he said they needed more time and continued help from the United States. He ordered a new surge of U.S. troops into Iraq back in January. He said the last of those additional forces arrived just a weeks ago.
Pres. BUSH: It takes a while to move our troops. It's - the experts know. You just can't load them all in one airplane or one big ship and get him into theater. You had to stage the arrival of our troops.
GREENE: And those troops, he said, may be able to create a more secure environment in Iraq and give Iraqi leaders some breathing space to work on their political divisions. So he argued that today's report to Congress was just an interim assessment. He said the real moment of decision on whether the strategy in Iraq needs to change will be in September. That's when the top ground commander, General David Petraeus, will come to the president and assess whether the additional U.S. forces are making a difference.
Pres. BUSH: Then we'll use that data, his report, to work with the rest of the military chain of command and members of Congress to, you know, make another decision if need be.
GREENE: With that, Mr. Bush made a subtle shift. He's often talked about a day when U.S. troops could begin coming home. Today, he looked to September as a potential turning point. He made it clear one option then would be to move U.S. forces into a supportive role in Iraq. But the question is whether Congress and the American public are willing to wait until September. Ed Chen, Bloomberg's White House correspondent asked Mr. Bush what it feels like to wage war without public support.
Mr. ED CHEN (Senior White House Correspondent, Bloomberg News): Do you -personally, do you ever have trouble balancing between doing what you think is the right thing and following the will of the majority of the public, which is really the essence of democracy?
GREENE: Mr. Bush rarely gets reflective in public, but things were a little different today.
Pres. BUSH: I guess I'm like any other, you know, political figure. Everybody wants to be loved. Just sometimes, the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved. And so, when it's all said and done, Ed, when you ever come down and visit the old, old tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics.
GREENE: But the question is whether politics will force Mr. Bush's hand. In Congress, Democrats want to end the war. They might have not have the votes to do that yet, but they likely won't stop trying.
David Greene, NPR News, Washington.