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White House Downplays 'Staying the Course'

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White House Downplays 'Staying the Course'

White House Downplays 'Staying the Course'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush is facing pressure to change course in Iraq, not only from Democrats but also from a number of influential Republicans. Today the White House acknowledged that it has been working with Iraq's government to set benchmarks, such as quelling sectarian violence and disarming deadly militias. But the administration is offering few specifics and insists it is not issuing the young government either a timetable or an ultimatum.

NPR's David Greene reports from the White House.

DAVID GREENE: One of the trademarks of President Bush is his self portrait as a steadfast leader. Here he is talking about Iraq in Utah at the end of August.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed.

GREENE: But that may have been the last time the president used the phrase stay the course. Today, White House Spokesman Tony Snow said the phrase was dropped after August.

Unidentified Man: Why did he drop it?

Mr. TONY SNOW (Spokesman, White House): Because it left the wrong impression about what was going on and it allowed critics to say well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy not looking what the situation is when, in fact, it's just the opposite.

GREENE: The military has said its attempts to secure Baghdad have so far been ineffective and U.S. casualties so far this month are already the highest of any month this year.

Mr. Bush over the weekend spent time talking to his military commanders and met this morning with his Secretaries of State and Defense. The presidential spokesman, Tony Snow, met with reporters today. He said the U.S. is retooling its approach in Iraq.

Mr. SNOW: Well, I think anybody who's been a Commander in Chief knows that there's a certain folly to having ironclad predictions about what's going to happen. You hope it's going to succeed and if it doesn't, you work to fix it.

GREENE: But Snow was very careful with his language. The New York Times reported over the weekend that U.S. military commanders are exerting some pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his new government. The paper said the military has a program of benchmarks and timetables for Maliki to meet, one of which insists he move more aggressively to disarm the militias running rampant in his country. Spokesman Snow acknowledged some of this.

Mr. SNOW: Working on trying to put together benchmarks is an important way of focusing and combining efforts so that everybody's playing off the same play book, looking at the same goals and working together.

GREENE: But he insisted that the president is not issuing any ultimatums and not threatening to withdraw U.S. troops if Maliki doesn't reach certain goals.

All the same conflicting pressures on the Bush White House were evident today. Some senior Republicans have said they want to change policy now, even if it's embarrassing on the eve of midterm elections two weeks from tomorrow. This was Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter on CNN yesterday:

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I don't believe that a shift in tactics ought to wait until after the election. There are too many casualties there. If we have a better course, we ought to adopt it sooner rather than later.

GREENE: But here's the challenge for the White House - pressing the Baghdad government to make progress could upset Iraq's fragile governing coalition. With all the talk of timetables and benchmarks in recent days, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh issued a plea today to the U.S. and its partners not to panic.

Mr. BARHAM SALEH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run. The fate of Iraq is vital to the future of the Middle East and world order. I believe that the international community must recognize that they have a partner in the government of Iraq.

GREENE: But with the political climate in the U.S. changing, it now seems that partnership is not unlimited and the administration's commitment may not be as open ended as it once appeared.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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