White House Looks for Optimism in Iraq Study Report The White House says President Bush will take the Iraq Study Group's report "very seriously" -- but reiterates that it is not bound by the panel's conclusions. Robert Siegel talks with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Despite the report's strong negative language describing the current situation in Iraq, Snow says it is not a rejection of the administration's policies.

White House Looks for Optimism in Iraq Study Report

White House Looks for Optimism in Iraq Study Report

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The White House says President Bush will take the Iraq Study Group's report "very seriously" — but reiterates that it is not bound by the panel's conclusions. Robert Siegel talks with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Despite the report's strong negative language describing the current situation in Iraq, Snow says it is not a rejection of the administration's policies.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

As we've heard, the Iraq Study Group's long-awaited report has 79 recommendations, and a key question is how those suggestions will be received by President Bush.

SIEGEL: Joining us now from the White House is the president's press secretary, Tony Snow. Welcome to the program.

TONY SNOW: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Last week, in Amman, Jordan, President Bush said we're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government, that is the Iraqi government, wants us there. Here's Recommendation 21 of the Iraq Study Group report. If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the U.S. should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government. Don't those two statements represent different kinds of commitments to Iraq?

SNOW: No, I don't think so. They would if you had an Iraqi government that appeared to be dragging its heels and was unwilling to make steps and make moves in the right direction. But yesterday, for instance, Prime Minister Maliki held a press conference where he ended up addressing a number of things that appear in this report.

He clearly could not have been responding preemptively to the report, but he talks about national reconciliation, for instance. They're going to have a meeting within the next 10 days. He talks about sharing oil revenues, which occupies a significant portion of the report. He's talking about economic development in terms of building tens of thousands of housing units, completing an investment law, itself also being mentioned in the report.

SIEGEL: But the implication of the report is that if the Iraqi government doesn't make substantial progress on this -

SNOW: Right.

SIEGEL: - ten the U.S. role there, the extent of it, is conditional.

SNOW: Well, you know, what's interesting is I think what they're trying to do is to make sure - they want some assurance that there's a sense of urgency on the part of the Iraqi government, and we think that's a perfectly legitimate question to be raising.

Also in the report are a number of things saying, by the way, you've got to step up. It recommends spending more money on reconstruction, and it recommends certain measures in terms of providing better military training and equipment. So it recognizes that there are two parts to this. But what's interesting is that some of the things that are listed as key indictors are things that Prime Minister Maliki just yesterday addressed in a speech followed by a press conference in Baghdad.

SIEGEL: Here's something you said on October 23. You said the United States, the Brits, the international forces and the Iraqis are all working as diligently as possible and as practically as possible toward solving the economic, political and security needs of the Iraqi people so that Iraq will be a democracy that stands tall in the region and sends a message to terrorists around the world, and we've now demonstrated that democracy can flourish in that part of the world.

SNOW: Yup.

SIEGEL: Here are some of the observations of the Iraq Study Group. The Iraqi government is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security or delivering essential services. The level of violence is high and growing. There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement. Pessimism is pervasive. Do you accept their appraisal of the situation?

SNOW: I think a lot of those things we do accept. I don't know about the pessimism part because it doesn't track with what we've heard from a number of Iraqis, but I'm not going to quibble. That is in their statement of findings.

For instance, the electricity situation, and this is something that we've had multiple discussions with the Iraqis about. They do need to improve the supply of fresh water and electricity, basics that we would consider absolutely essential, but at times and in some of the greater urban areas, they're not available 24 hours a day.

SIEGEL: But the study group goes beyond - this isn't like saying that St. Louis is without electric power.

SNOW: No, but -

SIEGEL: They're saying people are without the basics. They're desperate. They're desperate, is what they're saying.

SNOW: Well, some of the people are. I mean, you've got situations where there's been extraordinary violence. But the other thing it mentions elsewhere in the report is that there appears to be some robust economic growth elsewhere in the country.

But let's focus on the trouble areas, because that's really what the report is designed to look at, and I don't want to be accused of looking at Iraq through rose colored glasses.

You've got a situation in Baghdad, and it gets back to what I was talking about, the combination of dealing with violence, finding ways of trying to bridge the sectarian gap, providing employment opportunities for people who need jobs, and that creates unrest, just being jobless. Also finding ways of building a police force that is trustworthy and not itself a contributor to terror so that you are going to have the ability to say that those who now rely on militias, you don't have to do it anymore.

SIEGEL: But in your generally encouraging, upbeat view of the situation, would you use the words grave and dire to describe the situation, as Lee Hamilton did today?

SNOW: Well, Lee Hamilton used it, and again, he was talking about the levels of violence. Look, I'm not going to - I think if you were living in neighborhoods in Baghdad that have been racked by this kind of violence, you're going to consider it dire. And in terms of grave, I think it provides the proper sense of urgency.

But the other thing it notes, again, is they talk about problems in four of the 18 provinces, and -

SIEGEL: Or as they say, 40 percent of the population.

SNOW: Forty percent of the population, as I noted twice today on the record in press briefings.

SIEGEL: Tony Snow, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SNOW: Robert, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's White House press secretary Tony Snow.

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Iraq Study Group: U.S. Policy 'Not Working'

Iraq Study Group: U.S. Policy 'Not Working'

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Hear Special Coverage on 'Talk of the Nation'

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Iraq Study Group Co-Chairmen James A. Baker III, left, and Lee Hamilton conduct a news conference on Capitol Hill, Dec. 6, 2006. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Hear from Study Group Members

Co-Chairman James Baker on the Limits of the Recommendations and the Need to Act Quickly

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Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff to President Clinton, on 'One Last Chance' to Make Iraq Work

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Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on Streamlined Goals for Iraq

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Former Sen. Charles Robb: 'Our Expectations Are Modest But Very Important'

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Find out what President Bush and leaders on Capitol Hill had to say about the commission's recommendations.

A long-awaited report by the Iraq Study Group paints a bleak picture of the situation in Iraq. The 10-member, bipartisan panel says the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and could provoke a slide into chaos. The report, handed to President Bush and Congress Wednesday morning, lays out 79 recommendations to try to pull Iraq back from the brink.

The opening line sets a sober, grim tone: "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq."

It describes those problems as enormous: Violence in Iraq, fed by an insurgency, militias and crime, is increasing in scope and lethality. The Iraqi military and security forces are ineffective and corrupt. About 2,900 U.S. soldiers are dead so far, with another 21,000 wounded. There's no sign the situation will change anytime soon.

The panel's co-chairman, James Baker, the Republican who once served as a U.S. secretary of state, makes it clear the Bush administration's handling of the war is not working.

"We do not recommend a 'stay the course' solution," Baker said Wednesday. "In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable. "

In its report, the study group lays out three key recommendations.

First, the United States must help Iraqis take responsibility for their own destiny.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Democrat from Indiana who serves as the other co-chairman of the group, says that the Bush administration must send a strong message to Iraqi leaders to make substantial progress on national reconciliation, security and improving daily lives of Iraqis.

"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones, the United States then should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government," Hamilton said.

A second recommendation calls for a renewed, immediate push by the United States on the diplomatic front, including reviving Arab-Israeli peace talks and opening a dialogue with Iran and Syria.

The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to enter into talks with either country. Hamilton says both countries have enormous influence in the region and a lot of impact in Iraq.

"We will be criticized, I'm sure, for talking with our adversaries," Hamilton said. "But I do not see how you solve these problems without talking to them."

Hamilton and Baker are skeptical that Iran will come to the negotiating table. Baker holds out more hope for dealing with Syria's leaders.

"They could... be in a position to help us and might want to help us," he said. "But we're specific in the report. There must be 10 or 11 or 12 things... that we will be asking of Syria... We're talking about tough diplomacy."

And the study group also recommends that the United States make a fundamental change in its military operations by gradually shifting its troops from combat missions to training and advising the Iraqi army.

The commission suggests a five-fold increase in the number of U.S. troops embedded to train Iraqis. That would mean 20,000 U.S. trainers instead of the current 4,000. If all goes well, the report suggests, combat troops could begin leaving Iraq in early 2008.

Study group member Charles Robb -- the Democrat who served Virginia as a U.S. senator and governor -- says "embedding our forces at greater levels in the Iraqi military" will create "more capacity, more trust, more capability in the Iraqi forces."

Robb says a number of U.S. military officials agree that more trainers are needed.

The Pentagon, State Department and the National Security Council are due to release Iraq strategy reviews sometime in the next few weeks. President Bush has said he will look at all options before making any decision on Iraq.

Panel members on the Iraq Study Group said their plan didn't offer any guarantees, but that it would certainly improve the chances for success in Iraq.