By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006
President Bush declared yesterday that the United States is winning the war in Iraq despite the deadliest month for U.S. troops in a year, but he added that he is not satisfied with the situation and vowed to press Iraqi leaders to do more to stabilize their country on their own.
Trying to walk a careful line between optimism and pessimism less than two weeks before midterm elections, Bush lamented the "unspeakable violence" raging in Iraq while trying to reassure American voters that he is adapting his approach to address it. He vowed to "carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory" as long as it does not involve withdrawing troops prematurely.
"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said when pressed at an East Room news conference. At the same time, he said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either. And that is why we're taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting our tactics across the country to meet the changing threat." He said that he is pushing Iraqi leaders "to take bold measures to save their country" and emphasized that his patience "is not unlimited."
Bush's appearance, made hours after a news conference by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, exposed rising tensions between Washington and Baghdad as the fighting worsens. Maliki upbraided U.S. officials a day after they announced benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet over the next 12 to 18 months, dismissing the plan as "the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us."
The dueling messages come as U.S. casualties mount in Iraq and the Bush administration faces the prospect of Democrats taking over one or both houses of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections on the back of public disillusionment with the war. At least 93 U.S. troops have been killed in October, and commanders in Iraq have conceded that their latest effort to stem the violence in Baghdad has not succeeded.
Democrats quickly seized on Bush's comments and called them an act of political desperation. "This is a struggle on the part of the administration to look as though they're really trying to change course without saying they're changing course," Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a conference call with reporters. The congressional elections, he added, "will be a referendum on Iraq policy to a significant degree in many of our states and districts."
Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), Levin's counterpart in the House, said Bush needs to define his benchmarks for progress. He said he proposed goals to Bush a year ago. "I recommended that for every three Iraqi brigades that were fully capable, that we'd redeploy one American brigade." In response, Skelton said, the president wrote back that his recommendation "was too rigid."
Bush made the unusual move of calling a second news conference in as many weeks to address the public concern, and then opened the event with a 16-minute speech, knowing television networks would carry it live. He said that he had hoped this spring to bring many U.S. troops home this year but that events made doing so impossible. Although he maintained that there has been "very important progress," he acknowledged that Iraq is "in the midst of an incredibly violent period."
The president tried to balance a variety of competing ideas. He insisted on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq "until the job is done" but also talked about changing course to meet an adapting enemy. He promoted benchmarks for Iraqi leaders to meet in terms of taking over security of their country while distinguishing that from Democratic-proposed timetables for withdrawal of U.S. troops. He said he is pushing Maliki to do more but expressed confidence in the Iraqi leader as "the right man to achieve the goal."
Most important, he tried to reassure the public that he knows what to do to win because, as he said, "if the people think we don't have a plan for victory, they're not going to support the effort." At the same time, he tried to identify with public frustration over the direction of the war by expressing his own "dissatisfaction."
Asked by a reporter whether the United States is winning the war, Bush offered a discussion of the nation's role in the broader struggle against Islamic extremists.
The reporter pressed for a direct answer. "Are we winning?"
"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said. "Al-Qaeda is on the run. As a matter of fact, the mastermind, or the people who they think is the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks, is in our custody." He then circled back and seemed to make clear that he meant the United States is winning in Iraq specifically. "We're winning, and we will win unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle right now is Iraq."
Asked afterward whether Bush meant that the United States is winning in Iraq specifically or in the fight against terrorism, White House press secretary Tony Snow said: "In Iraq."
Bush repeatedly said this summer that the United States was winning in Iraq. "You're winning this war," he told troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on July 4. Three days later, at a fundraiser in Chicago, he said: "Americans are wondering whether or not we can win. And to those Americans, I say: Not only can we win, we are winning."
But in nearly four months since then, he has avoided repeating that assertion as violence has escalated to new heights, saying instead that the United States is winning the battle against terrorism or that he is confident that the nation will eventually win in Iraq. Asked at an Oct. 16 briefing whether the United States is winning in Iraq, Snow said: "I don't know. How do you define winning? . . . Let me put it this way: The president's made it obvious we're going to win."
Bush, who has adamantly resisted calls for timetables in Iraq, said that the benchmarks his team announced in Baghdad on Tuesday are not the same thing. "That is substantially different . . . from people saying, 'We want a time certain to get out of Iraq,' " he said. "As a matter of fact, the benchmarks will make it more likely we win. Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose."
Bush declined to rule out seeking permanent bases in Iraq, an especially sensitive point among Iraqis and Arabs who accuse the United States of waging the war to establish a military foothold in the region. "Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government," he said.
Although Bush agreed that the war has not gone as he had hoped and that he was "not satisfied," he defended his decision not to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or any other member of his national security team.
"I've asked him to do some difficult tasks as the secretary of defense -- one, wage war in two different theaters of this war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the same time, asked him to transform our military posture around the world and our military readiness here at home," Bush said. "I'm satisfied of how he's done all his jobs. He is a smart, tough, capable administrator."
As for whether anyone else should be held responsible for the missteps in Iraq, Bush said, "The ultimate accountability . . . rests with me. . . . It's what the 2004 campaign was about. If people want to -- if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."
He acknowledged that voters may do so in 12 days, agreeing that the congressional elections are shaping up as a referendum on his national security and economic policies. But he said Democrats were declaring victory prematurely.
"We've got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C.," he said. "They've got them measuring their drapes. They're going over to the Capitol and saying, 'My new office looks beautiful, I think I'm going to have this size drape there, or this color.' But the American people are going to decide, and they're going to decide this race based upon who best to protect the American people and who best to keep the taxes low."
Staff writer Walter Pincus and research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.