Debating an Iraq Strategy at Camp David

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President Bush met with newly installed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates over the weekend at Camp David. Changes among the top generals may pave the way for putting more troops into Iraq.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Over the holiday weekend, President Bush met with his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, to discuss the war in Iraq. The president is still reviewing options for new approaches to the war. Joining us now to discuss the politics surrounding the president's deliberations is NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams. Merry Christmas, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Merry Christmas, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What came out of the president's meetings at Camp David where he is, by the way, spending Christmas?

WILLIAMS: Well, the heart of the meeting was to look at options for increasing the number of troops in Iraq, the so-called surge option. Under that scenario, an additional 10,000 to 30,000 troops will be added to the 140,000 now in Iraq. The goal would be to tamp down the violence and allow the Iraqi government to establish control, while giving the Iraqi military forces added time to train so they could do a better job at controlling the violence themselves.

The U.S. military leaders have turned down this surge option before, and it looks like - they figure it would look like a U.S. occupation, get in the way of reconciliation between the warring Shiite and Sunni militias, as well as increase Iraq's dependence on the U.S.

But General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East who's been an opponent of the plan, has announced his retirement. And General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, who's also opposed, is now saying he's open to the idea if the president and his new defense secretary, Bob Gates, have a clear mission for the added troops.

MONTAGNE: So while the new defense secretary said he went to Iraq to listen to the generals, it looks like he was also trying to get them on board for the possibility of adding troops. Was Gates selling them the idea of adding troops?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Renee, that appears to be the case. The generals in Iraq and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have all been on record for some time as saying that putting more troops on the ground in Iraq will place tremendous strain on the U.S. military, in addition to the potential for stirring political resentment in Iraq.

But after Gates's visit, the generals seem to be taking the view that if the president believes it will serve a larger political purpose, they would be good soldiers. And that larger political purpose is to speed up the arrival of a day when Iraqis can limit the violence themselves.

Prime Minister al-Maliki reportedly told Gates that he's willing to support the presence of more troops, too, if they go after Sunni militias and allow Maliki, who's Shiite, to use his forces to control Shiite militias.

MONTAGNE: And what has been the reaction from Democrats on all this?

WILLIAMS: Well, Harry Reid, who'll be the Senate majority leader, said last week he's willing to go along with a short-term increase if it's coupled with a pledge to set a timetable for a U.S. pullout. Senator Carl Levin, who'll be chair of the Arms Services Committee, said that adding more troops has the potential to get the U.S. into deeper trouble in Iraq. And Congressman Ike Skelton, the Democrat who will be the new chair of the House Arms Services Committee, said he thinks putting more forces in Iraq will have no effect.

Senators Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton - they've all been critical, Renee, and asked the president to clarify what will be the mission for these added troops.

MONTAGNE: Speaking of putting added pressure on the military, Juan, the president said last week he's looking at possibly increasing the size of the U.S. military. That's a big job; it'll take a long time. But is it likely to happen?

WILLIAMS: You know, goodness, Renee. How times change. When Donald Rumsfeld was named secretary of defense six years ago, he wanted a smaller, faster military, you'll remember. And he created plans to cut 40,000 troops. Now the new defense secretary wants a bigger military, adding to the 1.4 million uniformed personnel on active duty. Gates says the need to fight terrorists for the foreseeable future necessitates this larger force.

If more troops are put in the ground on Iraq this spring, the overall expansion in the military will allow the newly created units to replace them by 2008, 2009. So while the Democrats in the Senate and the House have been cool to the idea of a surge, they are more supportive of the expanding the overall military, given the rising complaints from families with people in the National Reserve and the National Guard.

MONTAGNE: And Juan, you can take the rest of the day off today.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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