This holiday season, President Bush is visiting the Pentagon more frequently than shoppers hit the mall. In less than a week, he has made three trips, complete with TV crew, press pool, cops on motorcycles and Secret Service agents in SUVs. Each time Iraq cast its shadow over his appearance.
The first trip was last Tuesday. The President attended a classified satellite video conference with Iraq-based commanders and the U.S. ambassador to that country, Zalmay Khalilzad. The President is said to have asked a lot of questions as he searches for a new direction in a war that has come to define his presidency. "I thank these men who were our uniform for a very candid and fruitful discussion ... about how to secure this country," he told reporters afterward, "and how to win a war that we now find ourselves in."
Just three days later, on an unseasonably warm December day, Bush sat in the sunshine on the Pentagon grounds at a ceremony bidding farewell to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush gave Rumsfeld his walking papers the day after midterm elections delivered a powerful referendum on the Iraq war. At the Pentagon last week, Bush said of Rumsfeld's tenure: “The country is better off for it.”
The White House may have seen today’s event as something of a new beginning at the Pentagon. Vice President Cheney administered the ceremonial oath of office to a brand-new defense secretary, Robert Gates (who ran the CIA when the first President Bush was in office). "This has got to be an exciting time for Bob Gates," the President said at the event – an interesting choice of words.
He added that Gates “will help our country forge a new way forward in Iraq so that we can help the Iraqis achieve our shared goal of a unified democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.”
Even though the political lightning-rod named Rumsfeld is gone, any advice from Gates regarding a change in policy on Iraq comes relatively late in this period of reassessing the U.S. role in Iraq. Gates also comes on board at a time when public support for the war has fallen to just 31 percent, according to a new CNN poll.
In advance of the President's most recent ride to the Pentagon, the White House sought to downplay the criticism that continues to pour in.
Former Bush Administration Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the critics on Sunday. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, Powell reacted to reports that the President will send a “surge” of 20,000 extra troops into Iraq to try to quell the growing violence, saying that he doesn’t think the plan will work. Powell described the U.S. army, stretched to its limits after five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as being “about broken.”
Powell went on to say that Iraq is in a “civil war,” a term the President rejects. With blunt language, Powell said the mission "is grave and deteriorating." He stated: "We're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost."
The White House insisted that Powell's remarks should not necessarily be seen as critical. The administration has also refused to see the latest Iraq polls, showing very limited support for the President on the war, as a rejection of administration policy.
Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, “I think what you're trying to do is to create fights and friction where none exists.” In an exchange in the White House briefing room, Snow pointed out that "the way [Powell] put it was, he said, 'We haven't lost.'" According to Snow, Powell's points were: "number one, he says the situation is, in his opinion, recoverage. And the second is that he worried about some of the strains on the army, in particular."
Such an exchange demonstrates the degree to which public perceptions concern the White House. There's also concern that Bush's decision to delay a speech about the way forward in Iraq could be seen as a sign of conflict in the White House. That conclusion is simply "wrong," says Snow.
So now the speech will come sometime in January. But extending the wait for another month could serve to increase expectations — and at the same time risk a further backlash if the public, already restless and unhappy about the war, doesn’t hear the answer it wants.
SNOW: Well, yes, he did. He said — the way he put it was, he said, we haven't lost, is what he said. He did not say we were losing. He said we have —
Q He said, "we are losing," and then he said, "we haven't lost." He said both.
SNOW: No, no, he said, "If it's grave and deteriorating, and we're not winning, we are losing." That was his, "we haven't lost." So that's his characterization of the situation. He also made it clear that in his view, that the proper — that he suspected that the President was going to pursue a strategy that would, in fact, attack the kinds of problems that we're discussing — political reconciliation, building capability among the Iraqis, the recognition that the Iraqis, themselves, ultimately had to have responsibility for taking care of things, and that, again, whatever you did, you had to make sure that the military had a clear mission. I don't see any big disagreement.
Q Secretary Powell also acknowledged that it is a civil war. Why won't you make the same acknowledgment?
SNOW: Well, again, because I'm not going to get into the nomenclature game. What you have is a situation of sectarian violence, and it's of concern to us.
Q Just to be clear, you don't see any big disagreement on Powell's part with the President, or are you saying you don't see any big disagreement on your part with what Secretary Powell —
SNOW: No, I think when you look at the parts that I highlighted, these are all things that the President has talked about in recent weeks.
Q He also says we don't have enough troops to secure Baghdad; we just don't have them.
SNOW: Right. He's making the obvious point that the United States is working with the Iraqis in securing Baghdad. What he's making the obvious point is that U.S. forces alone will not "secure Baghdad." And that's where it gets back to asking your basic questions: How do you work together? And you'll note that he made the pivot there to the necessity for Iraqis to assume primary control over security operations. And they talked about the fact that, in fact, they are increasingly taking command of security.
Q Tony, his point goes beyond that. His point is — at a time when the government or the administration is apparently sending a surge of 25,000 to 50,000 more troops in — his point, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is, we don't have the troops.
SNOW: No, if you take a look, he talked about stretch — but, again, I'm not going — what you're trying to do is to draw me in to a discussion of options. We will discuss those when the time comes. But what he said was — let me just flip to it — first, number one, he says the situation is, in his opinion, recoverable. And the second is that he worried about some of the strains on the army, in particular.