New York Times: President Bush said Thursday that the senior United States commander in Iraq could have all the time he needs before reducing American forces there any further, but he promised shorter tours for troops and longer breaks for them at home. The New York Times
By STEVEN LEE MYERS and THOM SHANKER
Published: April 11, 2008
WASHINGTON President Bush said Thursday that the senior United States commander in Iraq could have all the time he needs before reducing American forces there any further, but he promised shorter tours for troops and longer breaks for them at home.
Democrats responded by saying that no end was in sight to the American troop commitment.
Mr. Bush defended the costs of the war, in lives and money, declaring that his decision to order more troops to Iraq last year had averted potential defeat there and that withdrawing would be catastrophic to American interests. Speaking at the White House to a small audience that included Vice President Dick Cheney, the secretaries of State and Defense and representatives of veterans organizations, he signaled that an American force nearly as large as at any other point in the last five years would remain in Iraq through his presidency. He left any significant changes in policy to the next president.
Fifteen months ago, Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq, he said, sounding a triumphant note about his decision last year to send 30,000 additional troops. Today, thanks to the surge, weve renewed and revived the prospect of success.
As was the case during two days of Congressional testimony this week by the American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Democratic presidential candidates offered assessments that diverged sharply from Mr. Bushs. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said the president refuses to face the reality that we are confronted by in Iraq.
Its time for the president to answer the question being asked of him, she said while campaigning in Pittsburgh. In the wake of the failed objectives that were laid out to be met by the surge, what is the exit strategy in Iraq?
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois echoed her comments. We have a blank check strategy in Iraq that is overstretching our military, distracting us from the other challenges we face, burdening our economy and failing to pressure the Iraqi government to take responsibility for their future, he said in a statement.
With only nine months left in his presidency, Mr. Bush has begun making the case for a war that will continue, one way or another, under another commander in chief. He flatly restated his views on the war that will most define his legacy, and set the terms of the debate over Iraq for the coming presidential election.
Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: Al Qaeda and Iran, Mr. Bush said.
If we fail there, Al Qaeda would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies, he said. Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.
Mr. Bushs focus on Iran, while not new, reflected deepening concerns in the administration and the Pentagon about suspected Iranian support for some extremists. They say that support became increasingly evident late last month during the indecisive Iraqi operation to wrest control of Basra from Shiite militias and more recently in a spate of rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Iran and Al Qaeda represent different threats, though they share a common purpose: weakening the United States. Iran has supported Shiite groups and Iraqs government itself to expand its influence in the region, using overt and covert means. Al Qaeda, by contrast, is a Sunni group that has no base in Iraq but that has embraced an indigenous Sunni insurgent group. In effect, in Mr. Bushs view, the American effort in Iraq faces attacks from both sides.
Mr. Bush declared that the Iranian government had a choice: to live peacefully with Iraq or to continue arming, financing and training what he called illegal militant groups.
If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq, he said. Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners.
Mr. Bush sought to reassure lawmakers in both parties that Iraq was increasingly paying for reconstruction and security with its own revenues, flush now because of the high price of oil.
As expected, he announced that American troops headed to Iraq after Aug. 1 would deploy for 12 months, instead of 15. He imposed the hugely unpopular extension last year as part of the buildup in Iraq.
He also said that troops would remain at home at least a year for each year spent in the field, a requirement that many lawmakers had wanted to codify in legislation but failed to accomplish in the face of opposition by Mr. Bush and Republicans.
I think it should not be lost on anyone that this suggestion the president is making now is long overdue and something the Republicans in Congress and the president of the United States have rejected over and over again, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on Capitol Hill.
The shortened deployments were a major recommendation of the armed services and of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worried about the strain on military readiness related to the war in Iraq.
At the same time, though, Mr. Bush endorsed General Petraeuss recommendation to suspend any more withdrawals for at least 45 days after the departure in July of the last of the additional units ordered into Iraq last year.
At that point the United States will have just under 140,000 troops in Iraq, slightly more than were in early 2007, when sectarian violence verged on all-out civil war.
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel on Thursday that they expected the level of American forces in Iraq to drop further this year if conditions on the ground improved.
I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one, and I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall, Mr. Gates said.
But he acknowledged that he had abandoned a hope that American troop levels could drop to 100,000 by the end of the year.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he heard a clear contradiction in the comments by Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen who expressed desires for a brief pause followed by further troop reductions. He contrasted that with the projections by Mr. Bush and General Petraeus, who in testimony before Congress this week spoke about no specific timetable for ending the pause.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, responded, saying, We would encourage members not to get caught up in semantic differences between those who have testified before them because, substantively, all of the presidents top military leaders and advisers are in the same place when it comes to the way ahead in Iraq.
But that was not sufficient explanation for Mr. Levin.
I think there clearly is a conflict here, at least in their description of what they recommend, Mr. Levin said after the hearing. This is not parsing words. These are words that are very, very different, and clearly in conflict with each other.
Admiral Mullen said the Joint Chiefs supported General Petraeuss proposals to Mr. Bush.
Its not a blank check, Admiral Mullen said. Its not an open-ended commitment of troops. Its merely recognition of the fact that war is unpredictable.
In his testimony this week, General Petraeus said he needed time to assess security in Iraq once the added brigades left; he declined, despite persistent questioning, to commit to any additional withdrawals at the end of that review period. He said any reductions would be based on conditions that he did not clearly define.
Nor did Mr. Bush in his statement. That left him vulnerable to Democratic attacks about how the United States would end its involvement in Iraq.
General Petraeus says hell need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions, Mr. Bush said. And Ive told him hell have all the time he needs.
With the war now in its sixth year, Mr. Bush appeared to acknowledge the criticism that no end was in sight. He said that as a democratic Iraq strengthened, Iraqi political leaders and security forces would shoulder more of the responsibility of governance and allow additional American troops to return home. He also called on neighboring Arab states to do more to support Iraq, beginning by reopening their embassies in Baghdad.
And while this war is difficult, he said, it is not endless.
Julie Bosman contributed reporting from Pittsburgh.