Bush's Proposal of 'Benchmarks' for Iraq Sounds Familiar

Addressing reporters, President Bush stresses his goals for Iraq  --  perhaps a bid to unify
Addressing reporters, President Bush stresses his goals for Iraq -- perhaps a bid to unify "stay the course" Republicans and those calling for a new approach. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

The text of President Bush's news conference yesterday ran to nearly 10,000 words, but what may have been more significant were the things he did not say.

The president talked repeatedly about "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq, using that word 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was "hypothetical."

That response left unclear how the benchmarks would be different from previous times when the United States has set out intentions, only to back down. For example, the original war plan envisioned the U.S. troop presence in Iraq being cut to 30,000 by the fall of 2003. Last year, some top U.S. commanders thought they would be able to significantly cut the U.S. troop level in Iraq this year -- a hope now officially abandoned. More recently, the U.S. military all but withdrew from Baghdad, only to have to have to reenter the capital as security evaporated from its streets and Iraqi forces proved unable to restore calm by themselves.

President Bush also spoke several times yesterday about his flexibility, apparently as a way of countering critics calling for a major change in his approach to Iraq. But he made it clear that he was talking about tactical adjustments, rather than the kind of sweeping strategic revision being mulled by the Iraq Study Group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, and also being urged by a host of members of Congress and political pundits.

More briefly, he touched upon establishing Iraqi security forces. But he did not use his old favorite phrase about U.S. troops "standing down as they stand up." He mentioned the goal of training about 325,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers, but he did not address the paradox that as that goal is neared, violence has intensified and the insurgency appears as robust as ever. Nor did he note that after U.S. forces stood down in Baghdad, they had to stand back up again. Instead, without offering much explanation, he said that "we are refining our training strategy for the Iraqi security forces."

At the same time, the president's tone has changed markedly. Gone was the talk of past Bush administration news conferences about "steady progress" in Iraq and all the good news that the media was said to be ignoring there. Instead he began yesterday's session with a straightforward and even grim account of the events of the past month in Iraq. He noted the deaths of 93 U.S. soldiers over the past 25 days. "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," he said. "I'm not satisfied either." So, he said, the American effort in Iraq is "constantly adjusting our tactics."

Yet under his sober mien and a newfound insistence on adaptability, he appeared to be quietly digging in his heels. "Our goals are unchanging," he emphasized in his opening remarks. "We are flexible in our methods to achieving those goals."

His bottom line was that "we'll work as fast as we can get the job done." That open-ended commitment to an unchanging goal doesn't seem different from the answer being given by Bush administration officials three years and 2,802 U.S. military deaths ago -- that the U.S. effort in Iraq would last "as long as it takes."

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member on the Armed Services Committee and a member of the intelligence committee, said Bush "has dropped the rhetoric, but the policies are the same."

Kurt Campbell, a Clinton-era Pentagon official and co-author of a new book on defense politics, interpreted the president's comments as an effort to patch up differences within the Republican Party over Iraq and to aid candidates facing close elections in two weeks. "It was meant to appeal to both the 'stay the course' crowd and the 'we need a responsible change' crowd," he said. But Campbell said he expected a major strategic revision on Iraq soon after that vote, predicting that "the political dynamics are going to change radically after the election."

Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former Republican member of Congress with ties to the White House, said he thought the president more broadly was trying to appeal to the American public as it loses faith in his Iraq policy. "Basically, the bottom has fallen out," he said. "The public is on the verge of throwing up its hands over Iraq." He agreed with Campbell that the domestic politics of the Iraq situation are going to alter in a few weeks, perhaps in unpredictable ways that will be shaped by the outcome of the midterm elections.

But former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo (D) said he thought that the president actually was laying the groundwork for disengaging from Iraq. "I think the war is virtually over," he said. By emphasizing benchmarks, Cuomo said, "what he is saying is, 'We are going to leave it to the Iraqis.' "

Under a barrage of sharp questions from reporters, pointing again and again to contradictions and problems in his stance on Iraq, President Bush clung to his most basic line of defense -- his own faith and confidence in his approach. He used the word "believe" 21 times in the course of the hour-long news conference.

"I believe that the military strategy we have is going to work, that's what I believe," he said to one reporter.

Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

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