MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Today President Bush says he still believes the U.S. will win in Iraq, even as polls show public support for his handling of the war at new lows. During a news conference today, the president would not discuss any specific changes to Iraq policy. He's set to give a speech in January. Mr. Bush did acknowledge that the past year has been difficult and that success has not come at the rate he had hoped for.
Coming up we'll have analysis from E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Rich Lowry of The National Review.
First, NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.
DON GONYEA: The tone of presidential news conferences is often set by the opening statement, as happened today, but on this occasion the tone was unusual. More than at any time since the November elections, when public discontent over Iraq brought an end to Republican control over both houses of Congress, Mr. Bush seemed to put his air of bravado aside. He said he is clear eyed about the challenges ahead in Iraq and he declined to predict what 2007 will look like on that front.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices because the enemy is merciless and violent.
GONYEA: Opening it up to questions, the first, from Terry Hunt of The Associated Press, focused on how the president has changed the language he uses when talking about the war.
Mr. TERRY HUNT (The Associated Press): Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said absolutely we're winning. Yesterday you said we're not winning, we're not losing. Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?
GONYEA: It was a question that might well have been expected. Still, Mr. Bush's response was halting.
President BUSH: My comments - the first comment was done in this spirit. I believe that we're going to win. I believe that - and by the way, if I didn't think that I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you've got to know. And we're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
GONYEA: The very next question dealt with recent news reports that the president is considering a temporary boost in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, despite the opposition of the joint chiefs of the military. The questioner is Caren Bohan from Reuters.
Ms. CAREN BOHAN (Reuters): If you conclude that a surge in troop levels in Iraq is needed, would you overrule your military commanders if they felt it was not a good idea?
President BUSH: That's a dangerous hypothetical question. I'm not condemning you. You're allowed to ask anything you want. Let me wait and gather all the recommendations from Bob Gates, from our military, from diplomats on the ground, interested in Iraqis' point of view. And then I'll report back to you as to whether or not I support a surge or not.
GONYEA: In that answer, the president was referring to Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, who was in Baghdad today conferring with the commanders. The president has always said commanders would guide his judgment on troop levels. Today he would not say whether that still holds with regard to a possible surge.
And while the president won't say what he will do in Iraq, he has already rejected some recommendations. Responding to a question from NPR, he showed little interest in one key recommendation in the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
GONYEA: One of the things that it recommends is greater dialogue, direct talk with Syria and Iran.
President BUSH: The, um - let me start with Iran. We made it perfectly clear to them what it takes to come to the table and that is a suspension of their enrichment program. If they verifiably suspend that they've stopped enrichment, we will come to the table with our EU-3 partners and Russia and discuss a way forward for them.
GONYEA: As for Syria?
President BUSH: We have talked to them about what is necessary for them to have a better relationship with the United States, and they're not unreasonable requests. We've suggested to them that they no longer allow Saddamists to send money and arms across their border into Iraq to fuel the violence, some of the violence that we see. We've talked to them about they've got to leave democrat Lebanon alone.
GONYEA: Finally the president was asked about his own legacy and the likelihood that he will be defined by one thing, Iraq.
President BUSH: I know everybody's trying to write the history of this administration even before it's over. I'm reading about George Washington still. My attitude is if they're still analyzing number one, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right.
GONYEA: And with that, the president looks ahead to Christmas weekend at Camp David, followed by a week at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he and his aides will prepare for the speech that they say will set a new course for the U.S. in Iraq.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.
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