President Bush says a new approach is needed in Iraq.
His comments — a response to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and its downbeat assessment of the war — came in a news conference Thursday attended by a strong ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two leaders worked together in making the case for war and in defending it over the past four years. Both still insist that victory is possible.
The president has held more joint appearances with Blair than with any other foreign leader, and Thursday produced an Oval Office meeting, followed by the news conference. In opening statements, they seemed to be working from the same script, as the president praised Blair's "clear view" and Blair praised the president's "clarity of vision."
Both said they still believe success will come in Iraq.
But the first question — from the Associated Press — pointed to Wednesday's report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, which suggests that the Bush-Blair approach in Iraq is failing. In response, the president declined to look back.
"The thing I liked about the Baker-Hamilton report is it discussed the way forward in Iraq," he said. "And I believe we need a new approach."
Blair was a bit more candid:
"I think the analysis of the situation is not really in dispute," he said. "The question is, how do we find the right way forward?"
There were no specifics about what that way forward will be. The president did say that a speech is being planned, but that won't come until he's received a trio of internal reports he's requested from the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council.
The president was asked whether the so-called Baker-Hamilton report shouldn't carry more weight than the others, given that it alone comes from a bipartisan commission, and given that Baker is a longtime Bush family friend and adviser. The president called it an interesting question.
"Some reports are issued and just gather dust," he said. "And truth of the matter is, a lot of reports in Washington are never read by anybody. To show you how important this one is, I read it, and our guest read it. The prime minister read — read a report prepared by a commission. And this is important."
But he did not say which of its recommendations he may adopt.
A British reporter quoted the Iraq Study Group report in describing the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating." He noted that the president's language in his opening statement Thursday was weaker, calling the violence "unsettling."
The reporter wondered whether the president is in denial about how bad things are.
"It's bad in Iraq," the president shot back. And after a moment's pause, he had more to say, adding:
"Make no mistake about it, I understand how tough it is, sir. I talk to families who die. I understand there's sectarian violence. I also understand that we're hunting down al-Qaida on a regular basis and we're bringing them to justice. I understand how hard our troops are working. I know how brave the men and women who wear the uniform are, and therefore, they'll have the full support of this government. I understand what long deployments mean to wives and husbands, and mothers and fathers, particularly as we come into a holiday season. I understand."
It was a demonstration that the president remains combative, even as he sifts through the accumulating critiques of his policy for ideas he can use.