Bush Details 'Strategy for Victory' In a speech Wednesday, President Bush says there has been "real progress" in Iraq and that U.S. troops won't leave until the Iraqi forces are ready to take over. Democrats say the president didn't outline any new details on what's ahead and didn't offer a strategy for success. Political experts discuss the president's speech and U.S. plans for exiting Iraq.
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Bush Details 'Strategy for Victory'

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Bush Details 'Strategy for Victory'

Bush Details 'Strategy for Victory'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a speech this morning before the corps of midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, President Bush outlined what he described as a plan for victory in Iraq. With popular support for the war declining and many in Congress calling for a plausible exit strategy, the president vowed that American troops could remain until the mission is accomplished. `Victory,' the president said, `will not be quick or easy. Tough times lie ahead,' he said, but he suggested that the conflict is entering a new phase. As Iraqi army and police forces become larger and better trained, they will take lead roles in operations to clear, hold and rebuild their country, while American forces concentrate on training and support in bases outside of Iraq cities and on operations against high-priority targets like al-Qaeda.

Though the president did not cite numbers, he did nothing to discourage reports that American troop levels may be reduced by more than 20,000 after Iraq's elections next month and maybe more next year, but he insisted that withdrawals would be linked to political, military and economic progress and not to any fixed timetable.

Today we focus on the president's plan, on his definition of victory and on the conditions for success in Iraq. Later, we'll get reaction from Baghdad and talk about a report that US military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories written by American troops. If you have questions about the president's speech or his plan, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us to talk about the president's address is NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good of you to join us today.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Before the president made his speech, his aides were saying the plan he outlined has been in the works for some time, but the president is under an awful lot of pressure to address the American public, even from members of his own party.

LIASSON: Yeah. There's no doubt that he's been under pressure to explain his strategy, to talk about how he plans to win the war, and that's pretty much what he tried to do today. The 35-page document that the White House released today, called National Strategy for Victory In Iraq, is not anything new. What it is is it's a declassified version, a kind of compilation of the administration's goals for Iraq's military, political and economic development. And he brought it all together in one place.

He also talked very specifically today about how things are improving. He cited--he quoted American commanders and Iraqi commanders who would testify to the improvements and the Iraqi forces' abilities to take the lead or to operate on their own, and he's trying to convince America he has a plan. His plan is flexible, because one of the other criticisms he's faced, as you know, is that he's stubborn and that he stays the course and he doesn't change, if necessary, but he says it's flexible, and it's actually achieving success.

CONAN: The president did go into more detail than he has in the past about the nature of the enemy, about what he said were mistakes in the way that Iraqi troops were trained in the past, about the adaptations that have gone on, and did talk about the possibility of tough times ahead. But he refused to talk about a timetable for leaving Iraq. Let's listen to a clip of what he had to say.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send the message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send the signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America.

CONAN: And, Mara, in those remarks and in others, he continued to frame the war in Iraq as part of the global war on terrorism, the central front in the war on terrorism.

LIASSON: Yes, he did. And even though when he defined the enemy, he said that the foreign insurgents, terrorists, are the smallest group that they're fighting. The Saddamists and rejectionists were the larger groups, but I think this is very important. He is trying to regain control of the debate about Iraq--a debate that he's been losing because it's been contributing to his dropping approval ratings--by defining it as a choice between withdrawal and victory in the war on terrorism. And I think that is where the president wants to fight. I think that's, at least politically, where he thinks he's on the strongest ground.

CONAN: Well, in terms of response to the president's address, again, this was not necessarily anything new in terms of the policies that he was talking about. Yet, he was certainly hoping to reframe the debate, which has been going against him, certainly in Congress.

LIASSON: Yeah, no doubt about that. And you heard today from Jack Reed and John Kerry, who are kind of taking the lead on this because they respectively went to West Point and the Naval Academy, and they have served in the military. They said this was just a reiteration of the goals; still no actual timetable for drawing down. And interestingly enough, House leader Nancy Pelosi, who up until now has not endorsed the position of Jack Murtha, who's that well-respected House Democrat on military matters who kind of shook Washington by coming out and suggesting--calling for an immediate withdrawal, she came out today and came pretty close to that. She said that she will support the Murtha resolution and she is backing his call.

CONAN: So if the president was hoping to sway his critics, at least Democrats in Congress don't seem to be responding.

LIASSON: Oh, I don't think he was hoping to sway them at all, actually. I think he was hoping to sway the persuadable, independent voters, where he's lost the most support, and I think he's been trying to put the Democrats on the defensive to say, `If you're for withdrawal, you are for, in effect, cutting and running.'

CONAN: There is also--as you say, this is part of a campaign, the first of four speeches that he's scheduled to give between now and the Iraqi elections. Again, at least in part, it seems, in response to critics who have said, `Gee, you argued more strenuously in favor of your Social Security reforms than you have for the war in Iraq.'

LIASSON: There's no doubt about that, that the president has come under fire from his conservative allies that believe he's done a very poor job of selling progress in Iraq, explaining his strategy in Iraq, and have let things go to such a point where you have majorities of Americans thinking that the war is not worth it, that he's handled the war badly, and the big question is can these speeches and counter-attacks on his critics on the issue of prewar intelligence, which is a separate issue--can they change things, or is the president at this point totally at the mercy of events in Iraq? In other words, the only way that he improves his political standing is if we have an election that goes off fairly easily without a hitch, that there's no civil war in Iraq, and that troops are able to be withdrawn in very large numbers before the US midterm election, so that people will not be focusing on this kind of relentless stream of bad news from there.

CONAN: And that if they can see measurable progress...

LIASSON: Right.

CONAN: ...in Iraq, then maybe support for the war may never be at the levels that it was two and a half years ago, but nevertheless, might recover from these numbers.

LIASSON: And recover enough to help his party. He's not on the ballot, but the goal--the political goal is to not have the Republicans be punished for this.

CONAN: Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us here in Washington, DC.

Joining us now is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. His cover story, "Why Iraq Has No Army," appears in the December issue of the magazine. James, always nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (The Atlantic): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, the linchpin of the president's argument, as he presented it today, and he was focusing, he said, on one of the pillars of his policy, was that as Iraqi forces stand up, American forces can stand down, can withdraw to fewer bases outside the city and conduct fewer dangerous patrols and fewer convoys and that sort of thing. Your article is one of those that has been highly critical of the state of Iraq's training at this point, the training of its forces.

Mr. FALLOWS: That's true. And there are a couple of things that struck me about the president's addressing this issue. First was, to his credit, he did actually address it. If you compare this to statements from the administration over the last month or two, he's been, I think--it was much more substantive than just attacks on the critics' motives. That was impressive. Second, that many of the illustrations he gave were true, taken on their own, and the question is--because everybody, including me, has recognized in the last year the training is getting better. The question is the surrounding environment, whether it's getting better enough to reduce some of the burden on US forces. And there's a final question--I think that he has asserted very strongly that there's not going to be any kind of timetable. This is, indeed, one of the core assumptions of his speech. There are reasons to doubt that, which we can get into a moment--of the pressure that's going to be on him for some kind of withdrawal.

CONAN: Well, one of the specifics that he mentioned was, indeed, the difference between the Iraqi forces that were deployed and used in Fallujah last year and the Iraqi forces that were deployed and used in the campaign in Tal Afar this year.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed. And it certainly is true there were more Iraqis in the latter fight, and they were not deserting and they were engaged, but there are more Americans in Iraq than there were a year ago, and many of the reports from on the ground in Tal Afar, where I was not, and I believe you were not, suggested the US was providing indispensable support and will be in that role for quite a while to come.

CONAN: Let's listen to some of the president's speech, and this is where he's talking about critics of the policy--or critics who say that Iraq's forces are insufficiently trained.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Some critics dismiss this progress and point to the fact that only one Iraqi battalion has achieved complete independence from the coalition. To achieve complete independence, an Iraqi battalion must do more than fight the enemy on its own. It must also have the ability to provide its own support elements, including the logistics, airlift, intelligence and command and control through their ministries. Not every Iraqi unit has to meet this level of capability in order for the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in the fight against the enemy.

CONAN: And, James Fallows, that seemed to be almost a direct response to your article.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, he was dealing with one particular fact point, which has been very much an issue in the last six months or so. I believe it was General Pace--it may have been somebody else--who said during the summer there were three Iraqi units in this highest level of readiness, and then General Casey said there actually was only one a couple of months later, which implied a kind of retrograde movement. I think the larger point is that, you know, this is a--the fully independent category is not what the US requires to get its forces out of there. It's having the Iraqi forces, in general, have some kind of substantial, plausible ability to keep the peace in Iraq, and I have not come across anybody who thinks that's a near-term prospect.

CONAN: And--all right. Well, we'll talk more about this when we get back from a break. James Fallows will stay with us. And joining us will be Michael Rubin, a former political adviser to Paul Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority, and he's with us here in the studio, and Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who's been our guest on many occasions, discussing policy in Iraq. Of course, we welcome your calls as well, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after a short break. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing President Bush's speech earlier today to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he outlined what he described as a plan for victory in Iraq, and this is the way he defined victory.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Victory will come when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation. As we make progress toward victory, Iraqis will take more responsibility for their security and fewer US forces will be needed to complete the mission. America will not abandon Iraq. We will not turn that country over to the terrorists and put the American people at risk. Iraq will be a free nation and a strong ally in the Middle East. And this will add to the security of the American people.

CONAN: Still with us is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. His cover story he wrote is "Why Iraq Has No Army" for the December 2005 edition. Also with us is Michael Rubin, former political adviser to Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and he visits Iraq frequently, is now a fellow--resident scholar, excuse me, at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. Also with us, Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel, who has taught strategy and military operations at various war colleges. And nice of you both to be with us.

Michael Rubin, the president seemed to be talking about victory almost in three stages: in short term, medium term and long term. Is this a new definition?

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (American Enterprise Institute): It's not a new definition, but it's about time that it was enunciated, because all too often, American policy has reacted to short-term concerns while sacrificing long-term concerns. And this is one of the reasons why we've seen the empowerment of the militias inside the army, because about a year ago, we bought calm by empowering this Badr Brigade and so forth at the expense of long-term stability and also some of the inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian tension, which has since resulted.

But long term, it's good that the president is focusing on the long term, is putting national focus--he was really speaking to two audiences. He was speaking to the American audience, trying to regain momentum, and at the same time, he was speaking to the Iraqi audience, both convincing our allies that we're there to stay, we're there to complete the mission, and convincing our adversaries of the same thing, that we are not going to cut and run, because, with all due respect to some of the critics of US policy in Iraq, while any politician, Representative Murtha or others, have an absolute right to free speech, sometimes their words are not used in Iraq the way they mean them to be used when they make them in the US political debate.

CONAN: Yet, to be fair, the president was talking about, `We will stay the course; yet, we will withdraw.'

Mr. RUBIN: Yes. And that's always been our policy. Now two weeks ago, I was off in the Middle East and interviewing some Iraqi insurgents, and this was a key point. Many of them believed that the United States would never withdraw unless they kept up the violence. Growing up in Saddam's Iraq, they had no concept that the United States doesn't want to stick around forever. And it's important that we convince them that we will leave, that we will leave on our terms, and we will leave after completing our mission. That's what President Bush was trying to enunciate, because as we all know, both in the Iraqi context and in the American political debate, the White House has lost the momentum.

CONAN: Sam Gardiner, let me ask you about some of the specifics of what the president was talking about in terms of mistakes, he said, were made in training Iraqi forces, that the original idea was that Iraqi forces should be designed to withstand enemies from abroad and that the national guard would be designed to deal with enemies within. This proved to be an error.

Colonel SAM GARDINER (Retired; Air Force): Yes. And I found it actually very interesting, Neal, that that was said. We've gone through three waves of this euphoria about how well we've trained the Iraqi forces. We went through one in the fall of 2003, when the White House and the Pentagon were telling us we had as many as a hundred and thirty thousand trained and equipped. In the spring of 2004, we went through another wave of this, where it was said that by April, we would have a hundred percent of the army trained and equipped. So now we're on the third phase. We had some problems with overoptimism before, and I think it was good that he admitted that we had those problems.

CONAN: Let's get a listener on the line. If you'd like to join us, by the way, (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. And Andy is on the line from Hopkinton, New Hampshire.

ANDY (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi there.

ANDY: This may sound like a simplistic question, but I guess I still don't understand about the notion of the Iraqi security forces being ready; I guess ready for what? If the US and the British forces, probably the two best forces in the world, have not been able to stop the insurgency, how will this lesser-trained Iraqi force ever be able to do that?

CONAN: Ahh, let me ask all of you. Sam, you want to jump in here.

Col. GARDINER: Well, sure. If you combine the speech with the strategy document that's out on the White House Web site, it says, `Our midterm objective defined on the road to victory is only that they are participating in the process of dealing with the terrorists,' not that they have dealt with them.

CONAN: Michael Rubin.

Mr. RUBIN: Let me give you one example of where the Iraqis can do something that we simply can't. Oftentimes, when intelligence comes in, it's something to the effect of, `This insurgent leader sometimes visits this mosque in Mosul.' Now that's not something the United States military can act on, because we don't know exactly where and when he'll come. But if you have an Iraqi unit, both intelligence, which the president talked about today, logistics, which isn't talked about enough, and ready to fight, you can have Iraqis set up, for example, cigarette stands across the street from that mosque and wait six or eight weeks to see when that happens and then act on it. That shows some of the cultural issues, which only the Iraqis can deal with, that we cannot.

CONAN: And, James Fallows.

Mr. FALLOWS: At least in principle, it's not--you know, in principle, the Iraqi forces should be way, way better at counterinsurgency than the Americans are. They're not occupiers. They speak the language, which is a fundamental issue. So were they trained, equipped, having logistics and everything else, they should be able to do the job better.

CONAN: But, Michael Rubin, this question of logistics, the president also mentioned that today; something--again, a detail that he's not gone into before--that it's not enough to just train an infantry battalion. Those people need bullets and beans. They need uniforms. They need to be paid. There has to be a ministry structure behind them to move them around, to provide all of those services, and that's not there yet.

Mr. RUBIN: You're absolutely right. When we listen to the American news, for example, we may hear about some fighting in Ramadi, and then the next week, we hear about some fighting in Qaim or Tal Afar. Now what we don't hear is that in between that time, we've taken troops from point A to point B in armored personnel carriers, we provided air support and so forth, and that's what the Iraqis need to do.

Now in the past couple trips to Iraq, what the Iraqis are talking about more and more is as we scale down our troop presence, as we rotate troops out, we hear in the American debate that perhaps some of the military equipment isn't as up to grade as many Americans would like. What the Iraqis are saying is, `Don't take it back. You're going to be buying new equipment anyway. Give us some of these not just Humvees and so forth, but the wrenches, the screws and everything that makes it work.'

CONAN: Did that help out, Andy?

ANDY: It does. Thanks.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate the phone call.

ANDY: All right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Eric in Portland. `So far, all the discussion about withdrawal for Iraq is focused on two extremes: either staying the course, no withdrawal, or immediate pullout of all forces. Why is there so little talk of a middle way, such as a partial pullout or a redeployment of troops to friendlier locations nearby, even a partial withdrawal that's kept mostly secret?'

And...

Col. GARDINER: Neal, I think what we heard was the framework for a partial withdrawal under those conditions. If you read the conditions in the strategy paper, again, that supported the speech, we have already met those. The president can say, `I have achieved victory down to the midterm level. It is time we can now begin to pull out.' So I think what we've seen is a strategic communications strategy that will set the stage for a pullout that's going to begin after successful elections in December.

CONAN: Would you agree, James Rubin?

Mr. RUBIN: I would agree, and this is a debate that while we don't hear it often enough in the United States, we hear the stark terms, this is what the actual Iraqi discourse is. One example, in Baghdad, two of the main commercial areas are Karada and Mansur. Before the Green Zone was set up smack dab in the middle of the two, it used to take 10 minutes to drive back and forth. Now it can take up to an hour to get from point A to point B, because you have to go around. The Iraqis say, `Why not go out to the airport to Camp Victory? It's out of the way. You can still do everything there you do smack dab in the middle of the prime real estate, but you don't have to get in our way so much.'

And things are starting to improve a little bit. Three examples. The airport road is much safer now than it was last month or six months ago. The road between Kirkuk and Baghdad, which was once closed, more or less, because of the insurgency, is open again, and people are going--driving between Amman and Baghdad again on the road that passes through Fallujah, Ramadi and the center of the Sunni triangle.

CONAN: Yet, all roads are not safe. We continue to hear of Shiite...

Mr. RUBIN: No. The Mosul road's not safe.

CONAN: And the road to Karbala, the...

Mr. RUBIN: ...(Unintelligible) grenades.

CONAN: ...(Unintelligible). Yes, yes. So, James Fallows, how--are there--what are the major differences? I mean, we saw John Murtha's plan did call for withdrawal to friendly locations nearby. I'm not sure where he meant by that, maybe Jordan. But the difference just seems to be in terms of structuring a timetable and the speed of that withdrawal.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think that's so. And there are some tactical or even strategic differences about how the US forces will be used in the interim, what the main approach will be to try to quell the insurgency, how the Iraqis will be integrated. But I think a lot of it is form--does this have the form of any kind of forced or admitted withdrawal, or is it a declaration of victory? And I think I would agree with Sam Gardiner that we're preparing for a declaration of victory, and then the beginning of a partial withdrawal.

CONAN: E-mail from Kevin in Kansas City, Missouri: `To most of the American people, it doesn't make any difference how well-prepared the Iraqi army is or how great the reconstruction is going. What most Americans care about is the fact that we are the cause for all the trouble over there. It's our fault the electricity isn't on, that the roads are a mess, that people are being killed every day. We invaded, we started this, and we don't believe that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11.'

And, again, that goes back to the president's frame of putting this within the context of the global war on terrorism, and the political frame of dwindling support for the war in Iraq and dwindling support for the American--for the president's handling of that war. Jim?

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes, Neal, but I--you know, we can't walk to the future looking backwards. I mean, we are where we are, and what we've got to do is discuss how we deal with the cards the way they're now in front of us. And that probably is the most important thing. And let me just add a couple points, which is, we do know some elements of this transition strategy. We know that the United States is going to begin to form what are going to be called provincial reconstruction teams, which will be sort of civilian-led provincial, focused reconstruction efforts. The...

CONAN: These worked very well in Afghanistan.

Mr. FALLOWS: They've worked in Afghanistan. It's still out, and it's also somewhat like the strategic hamlet stuff in Vietnam. And did that work or not? It's up in the air. But that's one thing.

The second thing is, we are hearing reports more and more that air forces are going to be replacing ground forces as we go through this transition, and that we will be providing fire support to the Iraqis from probably A-10s, doing and replacing some of the stuff that's now being done by ground forces.

CONAN: Seymour Hersh's article this week in The New Yorker looks into that.

Mr. FALLOWS: And it's in--preparing in other places, too.

CONAN: Yeah. Yes. We're talking about the president's speech today on the war in Iraq, where he described a plan for victory. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Mark, Mark calling us from Newport, North Carolina.

MARK (Caller): Yes, sir. How are you doing today?

CONAN: OK.

MARK: My question was, and I guess kind of a statement couched within it--would be: How effectively can the Bush administration pressure Iraq's Kurds and Shiites to include more Sunnis in the political process? Because if we remember in the '80s, when thousands of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites were being tortured, gassed and buried in mass graves, the US was supplying Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime with weapons, chemicals and diplomatic support. This is all declassified documents you can find in the National Security Archive, which outline how the Reagan and former Bush administrations, whose top officials included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, were supplying Saddam with weapons and chemicals in what was basically a proxy war against Iran.

Now I guess the statement and question sort of, I mean, there is we have exacerbated the ethnic tensions within Iraq that have continued to derail the political process the Bush administration says is key to victory. And you...

CONAN: Well, let me put that to Michael Rubin. Obviously, bringing the Sunnis in is a major goal of this election, and bringing them into both the army and the police forces is critical to success, is it not?

Mr. RUBIN: It is absolutely critical, but left to their own devices, the Iraqis realized this. The Iraqis were interviewing Sunni Arabs for the defense ministry position long before Donald Rumsfeld got off the plane and told them, `You gotta interview Sunni Arabs.' Likewise, what we're going to see with the election is that the Kurds will probably not get as many seats, only because they have election fatigue. They've had elections for far longer than the rest of Iraq. The Shia will also have splintered a bit, and Allawi will probably gain a little bit, which means that there is going to have to be a coalition government. It may be a weak government, but that means there's going to be a lot of horse trading, a lot of give and take, and at the same time, the Kurds and the secular Shia know that they can't form a government without bringing in at least some of the Islamists, and vice versa.

Now just as one point of fact, while I would fault past administrations for not taking a tougher line about Saddam's chemical weapons, we were not the suppliers in that case. West Germany was. And it's important sometimes to make that distinction.

MARK: Right. Our conduit channels where we were trying to skirt around congressional bans on military sales--you know, we had Iraqgate prior to the first Gulf War. And I guess the real question here is nobody really touches on the fact that the US has helped exacerbate the tensions here. The Kurds and Shiites might be more willing to forgive the Sunnis for, you know, the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of their friends and relatives, but it's unlikely that they're going to do it at the behest of the superpower that subsidized their oppression.

CONAN: Michael Rubin?

Mr. RUBIN: One issue that goes to the point of what you're saying about the sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq--one important change with this election as to past elections is that the past-election Iraq--everyone in Iraq voted across the whole nation on a single slate. Now what they're doing is coming up and voting on slates, proportional representation, but with 18 different lists because of Iraq's 18 different governorates. Now in the Middle East, in Jordan, elsewhere, what you'll often see is that when you break down the size of the election district, it undercuts many of the ethnic nationalists and religiously based parties, because in a smaller district, people are much more likely to vote for local concerns. So in this way, the Iraqis are already going a while to fix what was both a mistake of US policy and also of United Nations policy.

MARK: And I would agree with that strategy--I'm sorry, Neal.

CONAN: That's...

MARK: I would agree with that strategy, but the problem is I think the US has no credibility. Now maybe if you were to bring the UN in to help with the--reconstructing the political, economic, you know, future of Iraq--but of all countries, it shouldn't--probably not going to be the United States, given the fact that we've subsidized Iraqis', you know, oppression for 10 years, and handing their lives over to Saddam, who through the oil-for-food program, you know, the man who had been...

CONAN: Mark...

MARK: ...responsible for gassing his own people, was then responsible for distributing food and medicine.

CONAN: Mark, I'm afraid we have to go to a break, so...

MARK: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: ...I'm going to have to cut you off, but we appreciate the phone call.

MARK: Yes, sir.

CONAN: We're going to continue our conversation about the president's speech and his plan for victory in Iraq, as he put it earlier today, when we come back from a short break. We'll also go to Baghdad and get reaction to the speech there and talk about a report in today's Los Angeles Times about American troops writing articles that are placed in Iraqi newspapers. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. The Homeland Security Department is expected to announce soon that airline passengers will once again be allowed to carry small, sharp objects onto planes. Items such as screwdrivers and scissors have been banned since 9/11. And New Jersey has announced strict new rules to safeguard its many chemical plants from terrorist attack. The move comes after criticism that the state had allowed the industry to set its own safety rules. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow, rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina is expected to cost billions of dollars. Congress has already authorized more than $60 billion. The region's lawmakers say much more will be needed, but worry that it will not be forthcoming. Coming up tomorrow, how much do we owe the Gulf Coast? That's on TALK OF THE NATION tomorrow at this time.

Today we're discussing President Bush's plan for victory in Iraq. Our guests are: James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic; Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner.

And during the president's speech, I wanted to ask you--he said that Iraqi people are coming to trust Iraqi forces more and more through the recent months. And he was talking, I guess, both about Iraqi army and about police units. And there's every indication that police units are becoming more and more divisive; that, indeed, some of the militia organizations that, Michael Rubin, you were talking about earlier in the army are even more strongly represented in the police forces and reports of sometimes operating as death squads. James Fallows, the police seems to be a major problem right now.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. The same classification scheme that showed one Iraqi battalion in the highest readiness level showed that half of all the police forces were in the lowest readiness category, which is essentially not useful for anything, and the other half were in the category just above that. This has been a particular problem, based on the interviews I've done, partly because--General Maddox of the Marine Corps was saying, essentially, there was no example of a non-corrupt, non-abusive police force existing in Iraq or in people's memory. And so it's one of the difficult problems of creating from nothing a culture of a different kind of law enforcement.

CONAN: And, Michael Rubin, the president was talking about, you know, training Iraqi infantry units for two years and how they've improved, and then talking about training police--members of the police force in academies in a 10-week program.

Mr. RUBIN: I would agree with James Fallows on the problem. Aside from having the traffic police out and about, most Iraqis are fearful of getting stopped, getting detained, and part of that isn't just through the nature of getting detained, but it's also that they get lost in the system quite easily. There's not--the United States troops were having trouble with accounting for all the detainees. The Iraqis are having 10 times as much trouble. But sometimes I think that, in this case, the--we're still suffering from a bubble. And you can see this when you analyze the president's speeches with how few anecdotes he can give about talking to ordinary Iraqis. And this isn't an issue of just the president being able to talk to ordinary Iraqis; this is an issue of people at the embassy, the policy-makers surrounding the president, being able to talk to ordinary Iraqis.

Once we can get stories, real stories, verifiable stories, of how the police have helped people, that will be a sign that real change is on the way, but that's going to take a lot of time. And, as you said, it's going to take changing the culture.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Sam Gardiner, the police force represents a different kind of problem, and the interior minister earlier this month was found to be running a prison that made Abu Ghraib look like Club Med.

Col. GARDINER: Sure. And I think, Neal, what you may see in this reorganization of the provincial reconstruction teams is to get us closer to those kinds of things so that we have a bigger influence over them. Now I point out, also, that if you look at the White House strategy, it doesn't provide a criteria for police that would dictate, you know, we're ready to get out. The only criteria that's in there is the numbers of intelligence reports we get on terrorist activities, which is very interesting. I don't know if we counted that before, but seemingly, we do now.

Mr. FALLOWS: One short bureaucratic point: Because of abuses in the 1970s, there were a bunch of congressional prohibitions on US government cooperation with foreign police forces, as opposed to military. So part of this challenge was sort of working out ways in which that would become legal to actually help the police.

CONAN: Michael Rubin, quickly.

Mr. RUBIN: One other very quick point: Once we have new elections, this coming government will be for four years or so, which means we'll have a lot more consistency in the interior ministry and, therefore, a lot more which we can work with to gain traction as we move forward.

CONAN: Michael Rubin, thanks very much for being with us. He's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institution here in Washington, DC. Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel; James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic; wrote the cover story "Why Iraq Has No Army." Thank you all very much for being with us, and I'm sure we'll be back to discuss this again in the future.

During his address on Iraq, the president said that one of the most notoriously dangerous roads in Baghdad has become considerably safer.

(Soundbite of today's speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In Baghdad, Iraqi battalions have taken over major sectors of the capital, including some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. Last year the area around Baghdad's Haifa Street was so thick with terrorists that it earned the nickname `Purple Heart Boulevard.' Then Iraqi forces took responsibility for this dangerous neighborhood, and attacks are now down.

CONAN: Joining us now from Baghdad is New York Times reporter Edward Wong.

Thanks very much for staying up late to talk with us.

Mr. EDWARD WONG (The New York Times): Hi. How are you doing, Neal.

CONAN: Very well, Ed. Tell us about Haifa Street. Where is it? Why was it so dangerous, and is it still as dangerous or, as the president said, is it safer?

Mr. WONG: Well, Haifa Street is an area that's located on the west bank of the Tigris near downtown Baghdad, and the president is correct that at one point it was one of the more dangerous parts of Baghdad. It was a very insurgent-ripe area that was known as `Little Fallujah' to some people. There was apparently a lot of support in that area for the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and US forces in that area were engaged at some points in daily firefights with insurgents there.

It has quieted down in the last few months, and it's unclear exactly the reason why. The administration, obviously, points to the installation of some Iraqi security forces in the area as the major reason. One of my colleagues recently spent a bit of time with some of those Iraqi forces, and he said that what he saw and what the military advisers there told him was that the Iraqi forces were functional, but were not exactly proficient. He--the military advisers, the American advisers who were working with the Iraqi forces, said that the forces still had a long way to go to be a fully efficient unit and to be truly combat-ready when faced with hard-core insurgents.

These units that are operating on Haifa Street, just like many other units in areas that the military says have been turned over to the Iraqis, are operating with a lot of help from American advisers. And in the vicinity are quick-reaction forces or American backup teams that can respond to calls of distress from these Iraqi forces if needed.

CONAN: Is this an isolated example? I mean, we all heard of the danger involved in driving from Baghdad out to the airport. Michael Rubin was saying earlier that the road out of Iraq through Jordan has become much safer than it used to be.

Mr. WONG: The airport road that you mentioned earlier is safer now than it was. There have been a lot less bombing attacks on it. It's around a five-mile stretch of road between downtown Baghdad and the airport. It runs out to the west through some of the more--more on the edge of some of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad. And for much of the last two years, it's been, mile for mile, one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the country. What the military has done is it's tried to put some checkpoints on the outer edges of the road, and also further out on the eastern edge of the road, where the road intersects byways leading to the downtown area. That could be the reason why some of the attacks have quieted down there. A lot of the foreigners here--the foreign community here in Baghdad, people who would become targets of a lot of insurgents on the road, have often wondered why it took the military so long to do something so simple in basically installing checkpoints along these stretches.

CONAN: One final question before we let you go. Were people in Baghdad listening to the president's speech? Has there been any reaction to it?

Mr. WONG: There hasn't been much reaction, no. It's fairly late here in Baghdad right now. The president started speaking in the evening time, Iraq. And a lot of people here don't get some of the channels that might be showing the president's speech. Also, a lot of households have frequent blackouts, and I know many Iraqis say that they go for hours on end without being able to watch television.

CONAN: Edward Wong, thanks very much again for staying up late to talk with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. WONG: Great. Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Edward Wong, a New York Times reporter, speaking with us from Baghdad.

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