Troops to Stay in Iraq Beyond Bush Presidency
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Iraq was the dominant topic yesterday when President Bush held his second news conference of the year at the White House. Polls show Americans disapprove of his handling of the war and are increasingly pessimistic about the chances for success. The president insisted that progress is being made, but he also acknowledged, for the first time, that the American military presence in Iraq may extend beyond his time in office.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA reporting:
It's no secret that this president does not like news conferences. He's had far fewer than his recent predecessors. But he stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room mindful that this is something he has to do if he hopes to begin to alter public opinion about the war.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Now I'll be glad to take any questions you have, starting with…
GONYEA: With an upsurge in sectarian violence in Iraq, especially the wave of killings that followed the bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, the president was asked if Iraq is now in a civil war. He says it is not.
President BUSH: The way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war. A couple of indicators are that the army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united.
GONYEA: As for advice he's getting from members of Congress in his own party about the war, he acknowledged that there is nervousness, especially with midterm elections this November. But he said that's to be expected in Washington.
President BUSH: I think I can remember '02 before the elections, there was a certain nervousness, there was a lot of people in Congress that weren't sure if I was going to make it in '04 and whether or not I'd drag the ticket down. So there's a certain unease as you head into an election year, I understand that…
GONYEA: And the president, perhaps trying to make the point that he's ready to face the toughest questions people have about the war did something he hasn't done in more than three years: he took a question yesterday from one of his most vocal critics: Journalist Helen Thomas, who has covered every president going back to Kennedy and who currently works as a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers. In the past, she's described Mr. Bush as the worst president ever. Here's her question yesterday.
Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Journalist & Columnist, Hearst Newspapers): I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounded(ph) Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: why did you really want to go to war?
GONYEA: The president responded rejecting the premise of the question.
President BUSH: You know, I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect…
Ms. THOMAS: If…
President BUSH: No, hold on for a second, please.
Ms. THOMAS: …get angry(ph)…
President BUSH: Excuse me, excuse me.
Ms. THOMAS: Okay.
President BUSH: No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.
GONYEA: Other questions dealt with calls for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. The president answered that Rumsfeld has “done a fine job.” Mr. Bush again defended his controversial domestic spying program as a necessary tool to fight terrorism. And he seemed eager for Democrats to make that a campaign issue this year. And he denied that the difficulty of the mission in Iraq has hurt efforts to push reforms elsewhere in the region. He said what would really hurt the spread of democracy would be failure in Iraq.
At one point, the president stated that if he didn't think there was a chance of success, that he'd pull U.S. troops out. But he stressed that he does foresee victory. Then came this question.
Unidentified Man: will there come a day, and I'm not asking you when, not asking for a timetable, will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?
President BUSH: That, of course, is an objective, and that'll be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.
Unidentified Man: So it won't happen on your watch.
President BUSH: You mean a complete withdrawal? That's a timetable. You know, I can only tell you I'll make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.
GONYEA: But on a day when the president's goal was to reassure Americans of progress and eventual victory in Iraq, despite current difficulties, that statement, that troops will likely be there into 2009 when a new president is sworn in, speaks to the very thing that has Americans worried about the war: that this could still go on for a very long time. And that's something that makes the president's bid to win back a weary public even more difficult.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.