Bush: Putting Petraeus Out Front on Iraq

From the Oval Office, President Bush will endorse the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus regarding the withdrawal of up to 30,000 American troops from Iraq by next summer. The president is counting on U.S. respect for military judgment.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush tells the nation tonight about his strategy for the war in Iraq. His speech follows two days of testimony by the top U.S. officials there, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Both men told Congress that the surge in American troops has led to a reduction in violence, but hasn't led to a political progress for Iraq's national government.

Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Juan Williams.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president has always said that he'll follow the advice of his commanders on the ground. And now his commander is calling for a reduction of about 30,000 troops by next summer. That's an estimate. What's the president going to say?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, General Petraeus is President Bush's handpicked commander. And the president has gone against some of the advice that he's gotten from the military in the past. But what you're going to hear tonight, according to the president's aides, is that he agrees with this commander to pull 30,000 troops out by the summer of next year, 2008.

And so basically, that will take us back to about 130,000 troops on the ground. Right now, we're about 169,000, Renee. So that's the same level after the withdrawals that the president will embrace tonight, the same level that we had before the surge begin. That would be - take us back to January of this year.

But the president, as opposed to what you heard from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, will emphasize that those pulldowns will only occur if progress is taking place both politically and militarily on the ground in Iraq.

And White House aides say that these pre-conditions are going to be very strongly articulated by the president, because he feels he's speaking not only to Congress, not only to the people of the United States, but also to al-Qaida, also to Iran to make it clear that the U.S. is not going to take part in any precipitous withdrawal.

So the president is going to be a little tougher than what you heard from Petraeus or Crocker.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president's critics say a troop reduction was inevitable. That there's simply aren't enough troops to sustain the force at its current level, also the surge, by definition, was temporary. So, you know, we're back, Juan, would be - the country would be backward started from a year from now.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's exactly right. You know, the difference here is the way that the president is thinking and articulating it is to say, I am going to try to maintain the U.S. presence in Iraq throughout the end of my term. And I think that's a clear signal that he is going to be sending, and that's the way that they have tried to launch this as an effort to persuade the American people that it's a justified effort. That they prevented additional attacks on the United States. That there is - and you've seen this now over several weeks, that there is a connection between what took place in Iraq and the effort to prevent not only additional attacks but to deal with what took place on 9/11.

MONTAGNE: The president faces a skeptical public and a rebellious Congress. How is the White House framing the debate?

WILLIAMS: This is really interesting, Renee. You know, it's a little bit of a departure from the way that they framed things on the past. I think, you might remember that Andy Card, the former White House chief of staff, once said you don't roll out a new product in August.

This is - this effort, of course, began in August. It's been led by Ed Gillespie, the new White House communications director, he's a former Republican Party chair, and much more strategic and political than his predecessor, Dan Bartlett.

And they have really put the president, in terms of the military, speaking to the veterans, visiting Iraq as you know, and again making the effort that this an ideological fight of the 21st century. So that's the way that he's going to approach it is put himself in company with the military that's - has far more credibility than the president has, given the public cynicism about the war and the fact that it's such an unpopular war.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's analysis from NPR's Juan Williams.

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