Bush Huddles with Aides on Iraq Strategy

President Bush spends Monday at Camp David with his national security team and his Cabinet. The president is considering U.S. options in Iraq and new ways to help that country's fledgling government. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Camp David.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Assessing the war in Iraq is how we begin this hour. President Bush spent today conducting a war council at Camp David evaluating progress or the lack of it in Iraq. He met with his inner circle of national security advisers and military staff. He also had lunch with a small group from outside the administration. Late in the afternoon the president briefed reporters. Here's a little of what he had to say about Iraq's security forces.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're going to make sure that we fully understand the Iraqi capability to be able to take the fight to the enemy and secure its country. And the Iraqi Defense Minister is just in office. And General Casey, of course, will be making those assessments as he told us today via the teleconference.

SIEGEL: General Casey, whom the president mentioned there, is General George Casey, who over the weekend said that the U.S. could start to scale back its presence in Iraq over the next months. The White House has been careful to downplay such talk and to stress the need for a farsighted commitment.

Joining us from Camp David is NPR's Don Gonyea. And Don, what more do we know about today's discussions at Camp David?

DON GONYEA reporting:

Well the President talked about how much work there is yet to be done but that this is a chance, with the creation of the new Iraqi government, to really assess the future. And again he stressed that the challenge remains and that security remains a big issue, but as for today's meeting, it really seemed an effort to try to capitalize on the recent developments in Iraq and to try to get some momentum going in ways that the Iraqis will feel, but also that the administration hopes that Americans will see.

SIEGEL: The recent developments being the establishment of an actual government, a cabinet, and also the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

GONYEA: Exactly, both of those things.

SIEGEL: Now, was anything else said today about possible troop reductions along the lines of what General Casey had talked about?

GONYEA: Here's what we've heard today. White House officials earlier said the president did not talk about specific troop levels in terms of numbers. But this afternoon, he did confirm that he has heard General Casey's recommendations about a possible drawdown to as few as 100,000 troops or so by the end of the year. But again, the president stressed today as he has so often in the past that any withdrawals will be based on conditions on the ground.

Though separate from overall troop levels, there was talk today in this meeting of where troops should be deployed within Iraq. That sort of thing. So there was discussion on that, but if people were looking for this meeting to yield some clues about how many U.S. troops will be pulled out and when, we're not getting that.

SIEGEL: How, then, would you describe what the emphasis is that the White House wants to see come out of these meetings.

GONYEA: It's simple. They want the focus to be on how to help make sure the Iraqi government gets all the help it needs to be successful in doing things like providing security and stopping violence, obviously, but also getting reliable electricity restored to the people living in Iraq.

The president also said they talked at length about increasing oil production and maybe even creating something called an oil fund that he says would be for the Iraqi people, though he didn't elaborate on any of the specifics of that point. So that's the sort of thing they want the focus to be on.

SIEGEL: Now, we're told that the president had lunch with a group of people who were said to have divergent opinions on the war. Does that mean that he had lunch with some people who have opposed the war in Iraq?

GONYEA: These were not war opponents. There were four men he met with, men who have at times been critical of how the war has been prosecuted. They've been critical of tactics. But again, they haven't been opponents.

They were Michael Vickers, who was once with the CIA and who's a former Special Forces Captain. He's now with the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments. Robert Kaplan, a writer from the Atlantic Monthly who has written highly regarded books about war. Fred Kagan of the Conservative American Enterprise Institute. And also Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He's an expert in military strategy.

The topic was lessons of other counterinsurgencies. Again, the president seeking this kind of outside advice, looking for lessons that may be able to be applied to Iraq.

SIEGEL: This was day one of two days of these meetings. What's up for tomorrow?

GONYEA: It's a morning session, a video link-up to Iraq where the new Prime Minister and members of his new cabinet will join in. It'll be a dialogue between them and the White House national security team, basically again to determine what they think the U.S. needs to provide beyond what's already being done.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Don Gonyea at Camp David. Don, thank you very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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