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Bush Walks a Fine Line on Iraq, and Winning

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Bush Walks a Fine Line on Iraq, and Winning

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Bush Walks a Fine Line on Iraq, and Winning

Bush Walks a Fine Line on Iraq, and Winning

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Michele Norris talks with E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, and Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. They talk about President Bush's press conference in which he discussed Iraq, the economy, and how he might work with a Democrat-controlled Congress.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And with me now are regular political observers E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. He's here in the studio. Welcome, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Brookings Institution): Thank you. Happy holidays.

NORRIS: Happy holidays to you. And Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review joins us on the line. Hello, Rich.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (The National Review): Hi. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: I'd like to start with the president's evolving statements about the war. Today he said I believe that we're going to win but we're, quote, “not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted.”

Yesterday he told the editorial board of The Washington Post that the U.S. is neither winning nor losing. The president is obviously trying to walk a fine line here, is he not, E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well I think over this period from before the election to now, he's blown some holes through his own credibility. We recall that he said Rumsfeld, Donald Rumsfeld, is going to be secretary of defense right through the end and then the day after the election he flipped around and it turned out that he was actually trying to get him out of there in that very period when he said that. Now he said we're going to win before the election and he says we're not winning now. So I think that's a problem for him.

I think the moment that I thought was most striking today is when he was asked what will you do with a surge of troops if the Pentagon, if the joint chiefs or parts of the joint chiefs oppose it, and he said that's a dangerous hypothetical question. Well, it's very dangerous to him because it's one thing for Democrats in Congress to say this is a bad idea, but if a lot of people at the top of our military think it's a bad idea, it becomes very difficult.

And there was another moment where the president was asked, you know, how big a role will the commanders have in making these decisions. In the past, the president said I always listen to the commanders on troop levels. This time he said they'll play a very important role.

I mean, it suggests a lot of pulling and hauling and disagreement inside the administration and between parts of the Pentagon and the administration about the way forward.

NORRIS: The NSA as well.

Mr. DIONNE: Yes. And so I think this suggests the difficult that he's in.

NORRIS: Rich, we'll come back to the question of surge or no surge in just a minute, but first, most striking statement you heard in the press conference today?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, I think it's what E.J. started talking about, the rhetoric about whether we're winning or not and President Bush having to try to explain what he meant by absolutely we're winning just a couple of months ago, when he's no longer saying that. And it's clear his statement then, absolutely we're winning, was aspirational in nature and President Bush has believed all along very strongly that it's his role to project strength and optimism about the war.

The problem was there's a tipping point somewhere along the line there where that may have made sense but it began to be so at odds with conditions in Iraq that he began to erode his own credibility. I think we've seen a steady process of President Bush sobering up his rhetoric, which I think is a good thing.

NORRIS: But yet you still hear him say things as he did today, this is the calling for our times. You still hear that kind of language.

Mr. LOWRY: Sure. I think that's a different question. Look, I think when he says that sort of thing he's talking about the broader ideological struggle against terrorism and Islamic radicalism and I think it's completely legitimate to suggest that the struggle in Iraq is part of that war, and it's also completely legitimate for President Bush still to project optimism over the long term that we're going to win. Because as he put it, kind of his own folksy way, if he doesn't think we're going to win, you know, why are we there when he should be pulling the troops out?

NORRIS: E.J., I'd like to talk to you about the timing and the importance of that upcoming speech in January. The president has gone to great lengths to explain that he's getting counsel from lots of places, he's listening to a lot of people. He seems to be sort of playing up the anticipation about this.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, this is also a very odd moment that this is an administration that's been so self-confident, to the point of arrogance, and suddenly you see the president pull back and say we're not ready yet. We want to go through all of this. At one level, one says well, that's really good. It's good that they're not just jumping out there with a half baked policy.

You might ask, you wish they had thought a little bit more about this before we started the war. On the other hand, this is a very tricky thing for him because by the time he gives his speech, it'll be before the state of the union, after the Democrats take control of Congress, and we're going to have a couple weeks of second guessing and third guessing the president.

So he is really building up a very large burden for himself that he's going to have to meet in this speech, because I think whatever you make of the last election, it's clearly a demand for something very different in Iraq, and so he's going to have to deliver something pretty big, having postponed the speech from now until next year.

NORRIS: Rich, when we were talking about the question of whether or not to sort of buy into this surge in strength in Iraq, you noted that the president was careful to avoid a question about whether or not he would overrule his generals. It seems to be an example of something you've written about, something called the - something you penned the Vietnam syndrome.

Mr. LOWRY: Yeah, it's kind of a conservative Vietnam syndrome. Well, the lesson, I think the false lesson, that some conservatives took away from Vietnam was that that war was too much managed by the civilians and gosh, if just General Westmoreland had been left even more alone, we would've won in Vietnam.

When the truth is General Westmoreland had no idea how to defeat the insurgency on the ground in Vietnam, and in some respect, Abizaid and Casey have been replicating his mistakes, and Bush has been replicating LBJ's mistakes by letting them just pursue their strategy and totally subcontracting out his role of commander in chief to them with a strategy that has now been proven as a failure.

And I think if Bush is really going to run this war and make this decision to go with the surge, he's going to have to confront that core belief that he has repeated over and over and over again that basically, I do whatever the generals want on troops levels, and I think that was always a mistake for him to have that kind of attitude, but it's going to take a big attitude adjustment for him to turn around and say you know what? The generals aren't always right.

NORRIS: E.J., very quickly, if he does follow that course, how tough a sales job does he face?

Mr. DIONNE: I think he faces a very tough sales job because for the last three years, we've heard over and over again well, if we do this new thing, everything's going to be right in three to six months. If he does the surge, things better be better in three to six months, or he's going to have a very large problem.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you, and happy holidays.

Mr. DIONNE: And you, too.

Mr. LOWRY: Thanks so much. Same to you.

NORRIS: That was Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

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Bush Answers Queries on Iraq, New Congress

President Bush listens to a question from a reporter at Wednesday's news conference. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush listens to a question from a reporter at Wednesday's news conference.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Full Audio Coverage

Listen to President Bush's complete news conference, along with analysis from NPR.

Bush News Conference

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President Bush moved to close the books on 2006 Wednesday in a news conference dominated by Iraq and the looming challenge of a Democratic Congress in 2007.

The president was asked whether the U.S. was winning or losing the war that began when he ordered an invasion of that country in March 2003. In an earlier news conference this fall he had said the U.S. was "absolutely winning," but he had contradicted that judgment in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday.

The president said his earlier statement meant: "I believe that we're going to win," adding that he still believed that. Explaining his later remarks, he said they "reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted."

The president said that 2006 had begun with great hope in Iraq because "12 million Iraqis had gone to the polls" in support of the idea of democracy in that country. But he also noted that attacks by insurgents had prevented the political and economic progress those elections were expected to foster. Some of those attacks, he said, triggered widespread fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, frustrating attempts at to provide "security and stability throughout the country."

The president has been reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq, reading reports from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, officials from the State Department and Pentagon and various think tanks. One proposed option would send more troops into the most troubled areas of Iraq, including Baghdad. The president would not commit to this course today — "Nice try," he told the reporter who asked — but said he is considering it as an option.

This so-called "surge" option would increase the U.S. commitment at a time when polls show most Americans opposed to such a move and eager to have the U.S. troop levels decline. All national polls released this month have shown support for the president's handling of Iraq at all-time lows, sometimes below 30 percent. Most of those polled also say they now think the invasion was a mistake.

Asked if he would favor a surge in troop levels even if U.S. military commanders do not, Mr. Bush called that "a dangerous hypothetical question." He added that more troops would not be the answer unless they had clear goals.

"There's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before, you know, I agree on that strategy," he said.

That statement seemed to reflect sentiments expressed by General John Abizaid, the top U.S. Army commander in the Middle East, who had announced overnight his voluntary retirement from that command in March. Abizaid has warned that a troop surge might placate targeted areas in the short run but could leave U.S. forces over-extended and less capable in the summer months that would follow.

On a related issue, Mr. Bush did say he favored a long-term enlargement of both the Army and the Marine Corps, an idea his administration had opposed under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The new Pentagon boss, Robert Gates, was in Baghdad as the president spoke. Gates is conferring with the top military personnel there and has not yet committed himself regarding a surge or regarding the size of the infantry services in the future.

Gates had spent most of 2006 as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of ten members commissioned by Congress to assess the situation. He left when tapped to become Rumsfeld's successor.

One key recommedation of that group was the opening of direct talks with Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran. Responding to a question from NPR, the president said those two countries' current regimes know the price for direct talks with the U.S. and have refused to pay it.

Mr. Bush has said Syria must seal its eastern border with Iraq to prevent the aiding of insurgents there and stop its efforts to undermine the government of its western neighbor, Lebanon. In Iran, the president said, the government knows it must stop trying to enrich uranium for purposes of building a nuclear weapon.

Although questions of war and peace dominated, the end-of-year news conference also gave the president a chance to salute what he called "a pretty substantial two years" of achievement by Congress. He mentioned the energy bill passed in 2005 and changes to Medicare and the extension of certain tax breaks in 2006.

Asked about recent articles rating his presidency poorly when compared to his predecessors, he discounted "short term historians" and said he had noticed that even George Washington's tenure still stirred controversy. He said that meant he should continue to do what he thinks is right and not worry about critics.

The president made a point of promising to talk to Democrats who are taking over on Capitol Hill. He used the phrase "common ground" repeatedly, speaking of potential agreement on a higher minimum wage (if paired with tax cuts for small businesses) and seeing prospects for sweeping change in immigration laws and the management of Social Security.

An overhaul of immigration policy died in 2006 when Republican leaders in the House refused to conference with their counterparts in the Senate to resolve stark differences in their respective versions. Efforts at refinancing Social Security stalled early in the 109th Congress when the president and Republican leaders called for private accounts within Social Security and Democrats refused to consider them. No bill moved in either House or Senate.

Wednesday, however, the president indicated several times that he wanted to work with Democrats.

"I don't expect Democratic leaders to compromise on their principles, and they don't expect me to compromise on mine," he said. "But the American people do expect us to compromise on legislation that will benefit the country."