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Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 3:43 PM

DECEMBER 6, 2006

SPEAKER: TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY

[*]

SNOW: Welcome.

The president had a good meeting this morning with the Iraq Study Group. As you know, the group presented its report to the president at a 7 a.m. meeting.

Just a couple of opening observations, and then I'll be happy to take questions.

It was a meeting noteworthy, I think, for the civility and also the goodwill of the participants in the panel and also just the general tone and tenor of the conversation, which was entirely constructive.

This is an organization that's made it clear that it sees its mission not as one of trying to draw partisan lines but in fact trying to make a contribution to an issue that is of extreme importance to this country, as you have heard Leon Panetta say. It's a nation that has been divided over this war and we need to become united.

And members of the study group think that they have found a way. And we are certainly going to study it with great care.

At the outset, the president thanked all of them for their hard work. He said -- and I think it's an accurate prediction -- he said, "You are going to get -- the country is going to pay a lot of the attention to your work," which has been happening today.

He noted the distinguished nature of the panel and said, "We're going to give it a close look."

And after the panel had gone through and each member had give observations about his or her role and what they thought of the report, the president then thanked them all once again, and said that, "We are going to give this close study."

A couple of preliminary notes -- and I know that many of you have had chance to look through it -- but I think you get a sense for the tenor of the report from the very opening sentences in the executive summary or in the letter -- actually the letter from the co-chairs.

SNOW: It says, "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests.

"Many Americans are dissatisfied not just with the situation in Iraq, but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war."

At the beginning of the recommendations, in terms of what the commission thinks might provide a way forward, commission members noted, "We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq as stated by the president: an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. In our view, this definition entails an Iraq with a broadly representative government, that maintains its territorial integrity, is at peace with its neighbors, denies terrorism a sanctuary, and doesn't brutalize its own people."

As I know, there are diplomatic tracks in here. There are discussions about military. There are discussions about the role of the Iraqis.

The members of the Baker-Hamilton commission did, in fact, do a secure video teleconference earlier today with members of the Maliki government. And, at least according to press reports, the Maliki government also thought it was very good exchange.

Now, you may hear some people trying to fly-speck the report. There may be even anonymous voices within the administration that may try to draw conclusions. I would just let you know that that's not going to be the White House position. We're going to take a look at this.

And it's going to be tempting to ask me to give the president's evaluation of any one of the 79 recommendations, and I'm not going to do that.

SNOW: But I will be happy to talk about many of the areas within the report. But we're studying it. We got it at 7 a.m. this morning. And, therefore, I think it probably deserves close study and scrutiny, and that's exactly what it's going to get.

QUESTION: On the evaluation in the report it says the following -- and the co-chairs say the following: "Stay the course is no longer viable. The current approach is not working. The situation is grave and deteriorating." Chairman Hamilton says he is not sure whether the situation can be turned around.

Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this president's handling of the war?

SNOW: Absolutely. And I think you need to read the report.

QUESTION: I have.

SNOW: You've read the whole report?

QUESTION: No, I've gone through...

SNOW: Well, I've read the whole report. And I will tell you, also, based on the conversations...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: Well, if you listen to the chairman, you will have noted that he's not trying to...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: Please, you get mad...

QUESTION: OK, I haven't read the report. I'm just saying those are all quotes.

SNOW: I know. I know they're all quotes. I'm now going to try to proceed to try to place them in context.

Number one, they are not trying to score partisan points or to look back. The one thing is they're not doing a look-back.

The second thing is that they understand the difficulties. They have adopted the goals that the administration has laid out.

Why don't you go back and read through some of these and I'll go ahead deal with them? Go back on your notes there and give me the comments one at a time?

QUESTION: "Stay the course no longer viable."

SNOW: OK, stop. No, no, stop.

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: No, I just want to address them in their order and I'm going to forget. So I'd rather just let you do it one at a time.

QUESTION: It's, kind of, a totality question, though. How you can hear these not conclude that it's rejection of the president's policy?

SNOW: Well, number one, stay the course is not the policy. And you know the president's been saying that for months.

And if you take a look, what they're talking about is moving from so called stay the course, it is what? It is this. It is working on a process where the United States works as aggressively as possible to hand over governing responsibilities to the Iraqis, which is precisely what's going on.

If you listen to what Chuck Robb said, he's the one who gave context to it, which is that you work on training up the Iraqis so they can what?

SNOW: Sustain, govern and defend themselves. Which is -- we agree. And so stay the course is not an option.

And in a situation where you have -- to go on to the other point -- where you've got a deteriorating security situation in areas of Baghdad -- which the president talked about before the election in the press conference, saying that that is a situation that was not acceptable and we needed to address -- that in fact you look at this as somebody trying to make a constructive difference in a situation the realities of which we have discussed, and taking a look at policies, many of which we find very interesting, and certainly we're going to be talking in more detail about.

But you need to understand that trying to frame it in a partisan way is actually at odds with what the group itself says it wanted to do. And so you may try to do whatever you want in terms of rejection, that's not the way they view it.

QUESTION: Yes, I just want to be clear. Are you suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way?

SNOW: Yes.

QUESTION: You are? Based on the fact that...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Wait a minute. Wait a second. Based on quoting the report and the chairman, and I'm asking you a straight question which you're not answering straight, you're actually...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... you're trying to answer it by nitpicking it.

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: No.

QUESTION: You're suggesting that by quoting the report I'm trying to make a partisan argument?

SNOW: Let me put it this way.

Where in the report -- what you have said is, "Can you read this as anything other than a repudiation of policy?" And the answer is, I can.

And what I was trying to do was to explain to you, for instance, when you suggested that stay the course was a repudiation of policy. Not true. It's not administration policy. When you talk about the fact that there's a deteriorating situation, is that a repudiation of policy? No, it's something that we have acknowledged.

So what you've asked is a series of bullet points each of which we have been discussing and addressing, and then you're asking if that is a repudiation of policy. No, it's an acknowledgement of reality.

QUESTION: Just one follow-up here. I just want to be clear on what your argument is, which is not entirely clear to me. But it is that...

SNOW: No, you're trying to frame this as an argument. We're reading it. We're taking this in.

QUESTION: I know, you're clear in suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way; I've got you on that.

You're suggesting that the representations of this report are in sync with the way the president has described the reality in Iraq and his policy toward Iraq. Is that what you're saying?

SNOW: Again, go through, rather than -- because you'll accuses me of nitpicking -- read it. I mean, I'm serious. I'm not trying to be snide.

If you go through and you take a look at the metrics at the beginning, we've acknowledged that you've got a deteriorating situation in Baghdad. We have talked about the Al Qaida problems in Anbar.

We have discussed the importance of trying to come up with a transition where the Iraqis stand up and take greater responsibility. We've talked about the importance of having Iraqis assume primary combat control.

Last week, you had -- or maybe even earlier this week -- you had Major General Caldwell in Baghdad talking about a timetable that's a lot like the one that's in this report.

SNOW: So what you have here I think is a basis for both political parties actually to be working together.

We look at this as a very positive document. And rather than -- again, I don't want to get into the business of trying to render judgment on individual recommendations. But I will tell you it was very striking to all of us in the room, when you listen to Lee Hamilton or you listen to Vernon Jordan or you listen on the other side to Ed Meese or Sandra Day O'Connor, these are people who have said that they've never been in a commission like this before. Because this town is awash in bipartisan commissions -- you know that.

This is not someone where somebody put on the ceremonial bipartisan hat and just went through the motions. These people worked very hard.

And the one thing that they felt was absolutely important is to rebuild a sense of national unity on this. And that is their overriding objective.

I mean, you talk to Leon Panetta, who made a point of that in the briefing that many of you attended on Capitol Hill. Or you can talk to the members individually.

But that was striking. And it was something that we saw as positive and constructive.

And one of the things they said is, "We're not coming here, Mr. President, to criticize you." What they said is that this is an opportunity -- they see an opportunity to come with a new way forward.

Well, yes. And we like that. We like the formulation.

SNOW: It's what the president's been talking about. It is why he's instructed relevant institutions throughout this government to take a fresh look at what's going on.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: It appears, from some of the things that the president has said, despite the fact that you say, for several months, he has said, "We're not going to stay the course," he said, for a long time...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: One of the things that it appears the president has done in the last week, and then in Jordan as well, is he has ruled out some things: talking to Iran, goals. I mean, we asked specifically last week about goals for the Iraqis to attain.

These are some of the recommendations in this report. So has he in fact ruled out some of these recommendations?

SNOW: Well, keep in mind -- it's interesting because -- let me just go the question of Iran and then I'll go to the issue of goals. Well, I'll do goals because that's easier and I don't have to leaf to a page.

On the issue of goals, what you've had is the Iraqi government itself has been doing benchmarks. We had this long benchmark discussion a few weeks ago.

It is clear that there has to be progress. I think, if you read what's going on here in this document, it says that the Iraqis do have to make progress and demonstrate real effort on national reconciliation, on economic development, on diplomatic efforts with their neighbors, and certainly on the security fronts.

And in that regard, we've seen a lot of action in the last couple of days. Prime Minister Maliki, yesterday -- I don't know if you saw, but he had a press conference in Baghdad, and actually ended up addressing these things.

And he hadn't seen the report because he just got briefed on it. But among other things, he called for region conference to be attended by all neighbors, and I imagine, GCC countries and others, to talk about issues of mutual security.

He talked about -- declared an national reconciliation initiative. And they're going to be meeting in mid-December. That's a key part of this report.

He talked about Iraq being for all Iraqis and Iraq's riches for all.

SNOW: He talked about the hydrocarbon law, which is a critical matter addressed in the report. He talked about having a cabinet reshuffling in certain ministries.

QUESTION: But by when, Tony? Are there benchmarks? Does this have to happen by a certain time or does something...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: No. And if you look at it, there are no suggestions for drop-dead dates or benchmarks.

If you look at the report, what it says is that you want to see and you need to expect real progress on the part of Iraqis.

And what I'm saying to you is we're already seeing encouraging signs out of the government itself in the words and the actions of the prime minister.

When you're talking about a national reconciliation initiative, he's talking in the next couple of weeks. When you're talking about diplomatic outreach, he's doing it now. When you're talking about a cabinet reshuffle, that apparently is going happen within the next couple of weeks. The investment law, which is mentioned in here, has been drafted by parliament. The hydrocarbon law has been drafted and it's going to be presented.

QUESTION: How about cutting down on sectarian violence...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... which is the primary problem?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: And are there benchmarks for that or are you ruling them out?

SNOW: I don't know. The point is, what you want to see is a reduction in this -- let's put it this way: The first thing you want is a demonstration of seriousness and capability.

And the president had very honest conversations with Prime Minister Maliki about that. He met with Mr. al-Hakim a couple of days ago and spoke about militias. He will be meeting with Sunni leaders and will be having conversations about insurgencies.

The fact is each of these issues is being taken up. Whether there's a date certain or a number, I don't know if they're going to be attached to it.

SNOW: But on the other hand, to get back to something that David might have mentioned, open-ended commitments. There is no open-ended commitment. We've never said there was.

And the commission says: "You need to have" -- or the Iraq Study Group -- "you need to have Iraqis standing up."

What is reassuring to us -- and obviously we have to wait and see how it works out -- is that the Iraqi government's saying the same thing. And they are saying that they want to see more rapid progress on getting at violence in Baghdad, at getting at violence in al-Anbar, at building political reconciliation.

Part of the meeting with Mr. al-Hakim was to strengthen a moderate bloc of Sunni and Shia so that you can have ways of isolating militias and rejectionist groups that are causing so much violence and bloodshed throughout Iraq.

QUESTION: Just one more thing.

The bipartisan report says they're not certain this can be turned around. Is the president certain the situation in Iraq can be turned around?

SNOW: The president feels confident for the following reason. And I understand what the commission's doing is acknowledging the great difficulty of the task ahead.

The president believes in the transformational power of liberty. And he talks about it a lot. It's not a throwaway line.

And what you have seen are people in Iraq already risking their lives. And you see a (inaudible) dedication on the part of Iraqis, and also very practical talk about what they think it's going to require, for instance, to deal with sectarian violence.

When meeting in Amman, the conversations were far more concrete than they've been in the past in terms of what they think they need. And you have discussions of the way forward.

But the point is the president believes that the power of the hope of liberty is something that you can't quantify, but it is certainly something that has propelled this nation into the forefront of history.

QUESTION: Is that a yes?

SNOW: That is a yes.

But it's a yes and a why yes.

QUESTION: The report clearly advocates policies that are in opposition to administration policies.

For instance, last week in Estonia, the president said the only way to engage Iran is for Iran to verifiably suspend its enrichment program.

QUESTION: And the report says you need to directly engage Iran. How do you square that?

SNOW: Somebody asked that question before. And there are a couple of things.

First, it's not clear -- and it will be interesting to look at whether the report advocates one-on-one talks with Iran. There is talk about developing a support group.

But let me tell you what it does say about Iran.

Jim Baker, when he was answering your question...

QUESTION: It says "directly engage."

SNOW: Directly engage, but then it also talks about in the context of the support group.

QUESTION: But how are we going to redefine under the...

SNOW: Under the aegis of the support group. That's different, I think, than one-on-one conversations, which is something that...

QUESTION: Kind of like the support group oversees it and the U.S. directly engages?

SNOW: We'll see, but I'm telling you that there may be a difference between one-on-one talks with Iran, which is something that we have ruled out.

QUESTION: And that remains ruled out.

SNOW: Yes, unless Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities.

But it was interesting, because, look, as I said, I don't want to rule out entirely, because it's worth taking a good look at what all this means.

Let me make a couple points.

Number one, as Jim Baker told you, he's fairly skeptical about the Iranians, and that in many ways a proffer of this sort may be a way of smoking out their intentions.

Says the report, quote, "Iran sees it in its interest to have the United States bogged down in Iraq. " It also says, "Its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq." They attribute this reluctance to their belief that the United States seeks regime change in Iran, even though we have said we don't.

Then it also says -- and this is equally important because there's considerable realism about the activities and also the mischief being conducted by the governments of Iran and Syria. I'll just deal with Iran right now.

It says, "Iran should stem the flow of equipment, technology and training to any group resorting to violence in Iraq." It says, "Iran should make clear its support for the territorial integrity of Iraq as a unified state, as well as respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and its government."

It says of Iran, "Iran can use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation," and that it can help in economic reconstruction.

SNOW: There are a lot of things -- this is -- so there are a lot of things Iran needs to do. There is realism and skepticism about Iran.

We think -- let me put it this way: We share the goal of having all of these problems addressed and addressed in an effective way when it comes to Iran and similarly with Syria.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up on this. Is it enough, as the president also suggested, for Iraq to engage Iran and Syria or...

SNOW: Well, we expect -- again, let's -- first, on the issue of Iraq versus dealing with Iran and Syria, we expect them to. They're neighbors.

QUESTION: But this is one of the fundamental...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: I know. As I said, I'm not going give you a full readout on and specific recommendations among the 79. Give us a couple of days to try to parse it, because that's an interesting one and I've raised a question (inaudible)

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: I don't think you need a couple days for it. As I asked Mr. Baker -- and didn't get an answer -- does the president have the capacity to pull a U-turn on some of this stuff?

SNOW: Well, you're assuming that the president has to pull U- turns.

QUESTION: To go along with that...

SNOW: I'm not sure I agree.

QUESTION: To go along with that, then, so should we assume that there is wiggle room for the president in embracing some of these recommendations that he has expressed opposition to before?

SNOW: Well, again, I would take a close look on just -- I'm not going to get into the position of characterizing...

QUESTION: But you're saying that he's going to weigh this whole report.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: And there's a lot of -- and there's many things in the report that he already said, "No way, Jose," you know so...

SNOW: Like what?

QUESTION: Engaging Iran and Syria for starters.

SNOW: Well, no, it didn't say -- we've never said -- what we've said is Iran and Syria know what they have to do to direct diplomatic talks. That's what we've said.

QUESTION: So he's not going to change his mind on that?

SNOW: Again, why don't you -- I think this needs -- everybody go back and read this carefully. I think it requires some parsing, and we need to parse it too. I'm not going to give you an answer to that question today.

QUESTION: So there is a chance that he could change his mind?

SNOW: I'm not going to give you an answer to the question today.

The president believes that Iran has to change it's behavior. And it's interesting because there is -- this was discussed -- there is an acknowledgement within the report of Iran's needing to address its own nuclear issues.

QUESTION: As the president reviews this and the other reports, will we hear about his policy moving forward before the end of the year?

SNOW: I don't know. It's a good question.

But as the president has said, he has -- or I don't know if he said it, but we've told you -- which is that he wants the reports being conducted within the administration done as quickly as possible.

And when he's had a chance to review all that, he will describe what he sees as the way forward. Because it's clear that the present situation is not one that can be sustained or accepted.

QUESTION: You said you don't want to go down, point by point, on recommendations.

SNOW: Yes.

QUESTION: Although you already talked about Iran, saying that that's a no-go on one-on-one...

SNOW: No I didn't say that...

QUESTION: ... one-on-one talks -- you said, that's a nonstarter.

SNOW: Well, I just told you what our position is. But I've also suggested, I'm not sure that the characterization in this room is exactly what the commission's talking about. It's worth taking a look at.

QUESTION: OK. How about assessment by the commission -- by the Iraq Study Group that significant under-reporting of the actual level of violence in Iraq is...

SNOW: Yes, I think, what it's talking about -- and this is worth noting also -- is the toll of what's going on, in terms of murders of innocent civilians. That's basically what you're looking at.

You know, I think it's important for people to understand the gravity and the seriousness of what's going on and also the depravity of the people who are doing it.

QUESTION: Last one: It says the U.S. intelligence community, quote, "still does not understand very well either insurgency in Iraq or the role of militias."

SNOW: You know, that is part of a section that talks about the fact that there is -- that it recommends more Arabic speakers. It suggests the need for better and more robust intelligence. And that's something...

QUESTION: It's fairly critical of the administration.

SNOW: Well, I don't know -- as you know, as a former Pentagon correspondent, the Pentagon's been trying to address these, but you don't snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need overnight. And you don't snap your fingers and have the intelligence capability on the ground that you would wish to have.

As the report notes, we have tripled the amount of intelligence we get. But it's still approximately 30 percent of what they think they can gather. That, obviously, is a figure you want to improve on.

I don't know if I would call that a criticism of the administration so much as an acknowledgement that we have improvements to make in the intelligence area.

And that is a result of having had, for many years, in this country, the discouragement of human intelligence efforts.

SNOW: And since September 11th there certainly has been a much more aggressive effort to try to get people trained up, but it sometimes takes a decade or more to get people trained. And so what we ended up having was a lack of capacity in the system when we were struck on September 11th.

And it is absolutely the case -- it's not a surprise; the 9/11 Commission report has a lot on this -- that it's vital to improve our intelligence capabilities, and also our ability to work with the Iraqis to get as much intelligence as we can with their help and aid as well.

QUESTION: Tony, could I follow up an answer you gave Jim just quickly, because we're dancing around this Iran question? I think you said...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... there may be a difference between one-on-one and engagement with Iran. Would you clarify that a little bit? So the United States might engage with them...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: No, I won't. I'll just continue dancing around it for today, because I think it's worth taking a look at exactly what...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: No, I'm just saying, what it talks about...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... one-on-one?

SNOW: What it talks about here is in Iraq -- under an aegis of an Iraq support group. And I just -- you know, I, frankly, want to see what our...

QUESTION: "The United States should directly engage."

SNOW: But it talks about in the aegis of a support group, and therefore just, like I say, give us time to parse it. I think it's an interesting suggestion we're looking at.

QUESTION: If the Iraqis hold a regional conference involving Iran Syria, does that obviate the need for the United States...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: Again, I'm not going to -- I don't want to draw any conclusions on these things, but let me put it this way. We think it's welcome for the Iraqis, as a sovereign government, to do what they see fit in terms of strengthening regional ties. If you also look at it, the report recommends the mutual development of embassies in Baghdad and in capitals throughout the region.

So it is clear that there's real support for aggressive and active diplomacy on the part of the Iraqis on issues of regional security, economic cooperation and so on, and that's a good thing.

SNOW: I know it's frustrating, but I'm just not going to get into the issues about whether the United States -- that is not a forum, I believe, in which the United States would be involved. But I don't want to get into the, "What should the United States do about Iran and Syria?"

What we've always said is it's what Iran and Syria need to do, and they know it.

And interestingly enough, the report lists each and every one of those concerns and agrees they need to do those things.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on a question that was posed to the Iraq Study Group, where the president has consistently said he listens to the advice of commanders on the ground for guiding U.S. policy in Iraq.

Considering this group -- a few have been to Iraq; with the exception of one, have not been outside of the Green Zone.

SNOW: (inaudible) closer too.

QUESTION: Exactly.

But why should we believe, or even think, that the president is going to give more weight or considerable weight to this group and their recommendations than what he has been hearing from his commanders on the ground up until this point?

SNOW: Well, are you saying that this is all inconsistent with what he hears from commanders on the ground?

QUESTION: That's your judgment; that's not mine.

SNOW: Well, no, what you're trying to do is to draw them into opposition. At least it seems to me that the implicit assumption there is that there is opposition.

The president's going to pay attention because these are men and women of accomplishment who've worked very hard -- and not just themselves. Leap to the back and you can see who the staff members are -- who have worked very hard at trying to take a fresh look at this.

And they did not have to -- look, many of the reporters telling us what goes on don't leave the Green Zone.

So I think it's worth noting that you have people who are doing their very best to collect as much intelligence as possible, and they've spoken with leaders of the Iraqi government, and they've spoken with leaders outside the Green Zone, and I think that this is a report that deserves real study and respect. And I know that's how the president feels, and he feels strongly about it.

So if you ask, "How can I know?" It's because that's what the president said. I've seen him. He's said it with conviction. And it is something that all of us are taking very seriously today at the White House.

QUESTION: It's not an executive order or a piece of legislation. It's nonbinding.

How does the president see this particular set of recommendations? How does he weigh its significance compared to, say, the NSC's internal review or what he will take a look at from the Pentagon?

SNOW: Well, what he ends up doing is he makes decisions as commander in chief based on what he thinks makes the most sense.

We haven't seen any of the other reviews. I don't think you want to try to start assigning weights to them.

This is serious. And, as Lee Hamilton's pointed out, it's also bipartisan.

SNOW: I think, again, in the atmosphere of contemporary Washington, where there's always an attempt to try to take positions based on party loyalty rather than facts on the ground, it is really refreshing to have people say, "No, I'm a lifelong Democrat; I'm putting that aside. I'm a lifelong Republican; I'm putting that aside. I want to do what's right for the country."

And this offers an opportunity I think for a lot of people to step away from campaign animosities and also rhetoric to say, "What is good for the country? What's the best way to do this?"

And they have an opportunity here to take a look at a series of thoughtful analyses and to see which ones they think makes sense but also maybe to provide a basis for discussion.

And the president will be meeting today with bipartisan leaders of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees in Congress in both houses, and I think it offers a very promising way maybe for everybody to be able to be able to say, "OK, campaign's over. The business of governing has begun. It's time to do what Americans have been able to do successfully before, which is pull together around a common challenge, an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself and figure out the best way to move forward."

And to give you an example -- you mentioned recommendations in here -- I mean, it cites General Casey's own ambitions for transferring combat authority.

So, I mean, we take seriously what they do because they're serious people, and they surrounded themselves with serious people and they did an immense amount of work. And I think it deserves respect.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the overall assessment the commission has given of the current situation?

SNOW: Yes.

QUESTION: Does the president agree that after three and a half years of war and what he has often called a plan for victory, the situation is grave and deteriorating?

SNOW: Let me put it this way. What we're talking about is a contemporary snapshot of a situation where in recent months it has been deteriorating and that's a grave concern.

When you have a capital city of Baghdad that is being affected by the kind of violence that has stricken the capital (inaudible) some time, you better believe it's a real concern, and it needs to be addressed.

I think -- you know, I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think it is safe to say that -- I know, you're trying...

(LAUGHTER)

No, it's his job to put words in my mouth. That's why I'm trying to get the order right here.

But the fact is that there is no denying the level of violence -- and, you know, they took a look at four provinces, really, where they think it's almost entirely confined, but it's still a serious problem. Those four province account for 40 percent of the population of Iraq.

And, therefore, it is a situation where you have -- October was the worst month we've had in a very long time. That does not mark an improvement.

SNOW: And therefore you really do have to roll up your sleeves and work at it.

It is clear that the original plan for trying to bring stability to Baghdad didn't work. And so now you've got to go back to the drawing board.

QUESTION: That's an overall characterization: He's not rejecting that.

SNOW: Well, but on the other hand, as member of the commission have said, be careful about trying to sound bite this. Because the commission also talks about increased democratic capacity in other parts of the country, it talks about hopeful signs of progress on the political front, it talks about improvements and problems in the oil fields.

When you talk about the security situation in Baghdad and Anbar and a couple of other provinces, yes, there has been deterioration in the last couple months. But there are a whole series of things going within Iraq, including, as reported yesterday, successful operations in Anbar against Al Qaida targets.

You can never say -- just as "stay the course" is something that doesn't happen, you also have to realize that characterizations are going to shift because you've got an immense amount of activity going on right now.

For instance, when those words were written, Prime Minister Maliki had not had the press conference he had yesterday, he hadn't had the conversations with Mr. al-Hakim.

There is a great deal of activity going on. The Iraqi government is beginning to stand up in very significant ways.

SNOW: And I think, in some ways, that vindicates the judgment of the people who have been working on this report and understand how important a priority that is.

QUESTION: How far back has the president been working on the issue of reconciliation?

And particularly, I'm bringing that up, as Friday, the president has (OFF-MIKE) deal with that issue with Thabo Mbeki, giving examples of truth and reconciliation (OFF-MIKE)?

SNOW: Well, let's put it this way: Reconciliation has been a topic of conversation between the president and the prime minister since their first meeting, when we flew into Baghdad shortly after Prime Minister Maliki took office.

You did not have a permanent, elected, constitutional Iraqi government until that point.

So from the very beginning of this government, reconciliation has been a key concern. It has been voiced by the president repeatedly. It has been stressed by the president. It has been acknowledged by the government of Iraq.

I think, as you see continuing operations to deal with other problems that are outlined in this report, like the lack of discipline, corruption and, in some cases, outright violence perpetrated by police forces, we've talked about the need to address that. And General Casey has made that a priority.

The point is that reconciliation is critical. The Iraqis have to see themselves not only as nation free but as a nation whole, united by a sense of national purpose and national identity. And those have been key concerns throughout.

QUESTION: Can you talk to me, again, about South Africa? How does South Africa -- what does their example bring to Iraq, the truth and reconciliation (OFF-MIKE)?

Because that's two -- they're unique, and yet they're, so far...

SNOW: Well, I think what you're getting at may be the issue of amnesty, which is raised. You know, how is it that you turn swords into ploughshares?

And there may be -- you know, Nelson Mandela had the ability to get people who were committing acts of violence to stand down and stop doing it. And you do need transformational leaders who know how to turn old hostilities into a new sense of national unity.

QUESTION: I'll spare you the text question and defer that to a deputy, but leading up to the war, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote a column basically warning about if there's any pre-emptive strike or implementing a policy of pre-emption, that you have to have allied support much broader than your definition of coalition of the willing.

And he also warned that if you were going in there and basically regarded as occupiers, rather than greeted as liberators, that there could be (inaudible) -- I can't even say it.

SNOW: Conflagration?

QUESTION: Yes, thank you.

SNOW: You're welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... in the Middle East.

SNOW: Thank you. I'm aware of the -- OK.

QUESTION: May I ask a question?

SNOW: OK, good, yes.

QUESTION: Why didn't the administration seek Mr. Brent Scowcroft's advice or at least listen to it, rather than dismiss it as disloyal to the president?

SNOW: I'm not sure that's what happened. It's before my time. And I'm not going to revisit a five-year-old argument.

Instead I think what's most important to do at this point is what the commission says it wants to do is, which is work forward and build a sense of national unity.

QUESTION: Can you comment on the proposal to increase the reconstruction money for Iraq? Is that something...

SNOW: No.

QUESTION: It's not something you'll talk about or...

SNOW: We have talked about it. But again, I just -- since I've already laid down the marker of not talking about specific items, not even for that one.

QUESTION: Tony, the president has had commission reports before -- 9/11 or the intelligence -- and he's actually tasked the organization of absorbing the material or the blame.

Can you -- maybe I don't understand; maybe you talked about it earlier, but what did he and chief of staff decide to do to take the 79, parcel them out, make sure they're absorbed in cases...

SNOW: Well, there are standard ways of dealing with this. And you've got the NSC that's doing a review. There are a number of offices that are busy doing reviews. So it is -- there is not a, sort of, paper that says, "Eight working groups, you get here, you get back to us." But...

QUESTION: There is no kind of organization that asks for absorption?

SNOW: We're all asking for it. Everybody is looking at it.

QUESTION: But by a certain -- I will give you an example.

For instance, in the commission report they would like to see the Iraq expenditures, the war expenditures built into the '08 budget. The president is going to finish that presentation around Christmas for presentation in February. So you would assume that inside the White House...

SNOW: Again, the one thing I'm not going to do is either to give you a jump on the State of the Union Address or the budget which will be released the first week of February.

QUESTION: I'm asking a process questions. So, for instance...

SNOW: Things like that are constantly reconsidered. Is that going to be considered? Yes.

QUESTION: No, but I'm just saying, is it divided up so OMB gets back to the pavement (ph), NSC gets back...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: I honestly don't know.

QUESTION: That's all I wanted to know.

SNOW: I've been engaged in the business of reading the report and not doing the process.

QUESTION: How many more Iraqis have to die before this is considered a civil war rather than sectarian conflict?

SNOW: Well, is that how you define what's a civil war?

QUESTION: I think Colin Powell considers this a civil war now.

SNOW: I know Colin Powell has said it is, and a number of very thoughtful people -- (inaudible) John Keegan, the foremost military historian in the world says it's not.

I don't think it's helpful to get in -- to try to reduce it to one or two words. I think what it is useful to do is to figure out how to stem the bloodshed and make democracy a reality of life for the people in Iraq, because that's what they want.

QUESTION: Staying with the subject, but I want to jump back to yesterday's news, obviously, the president met with the secretary general of the United Nations.

SNOW: Yes.

QUESTION: You said it would be a social occasion.

SNOW: Right.

QUESTION: But I don't think it's conceivable they didn't talk about Iraq. My question to you is, do you -- since you are interested in international support for your policy, is there a possibility that the U.N. might play a role at this late stage in at least deliberating what's happening...

(CROSSTALK)

SNOW: Well, if you take a look, U.N. support is always welcome. Resolution 1441, obviously, was something that laid down a marker for Saddam Hussein.

But I don't know if there are any conversations or not last night. I was actually out with you guys.

SNOW: And the president was having a private party that does not get read out even to staff members.

So I don't know what happened when it came to the dinner for Kofi Annan, but, you know, the Iraq Study Group has some recommendations also for positive U.N. action.

You always want more support.

Now, what you have had is a series of very aggressive diplomatic efforts in the region, and they're going to continue. The president has been talking with leaders in the region on a consistent basis.

I think what's interesting about this is it does give everybody a chance to step back and say, "OK, let's stop thinking about this in a Democratic versus Republican lens, let's stop thinking about this in a George Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Jack Murtha sort of way; let us give the due to these senior statesmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties, who literally have set partisanship aside trying to come up with what's best for the country, and let's ask ourselves a question: How does this measure up? Does this in fact meet the goals? How can this move us constructively forward not only in Iraq, but maybe also in the business of healing bitter political divisions within the United States?"

QUESTION: In a way, that's why I'm asking the question. You had a lot of former critics of the war in Iraq, including (inaudible). So, again, at this late stage, why not step back and see what we might possibly do together? But I think you need to ask for it, you need to suggest it.

SNOW: It is not as if this topic does not come up on a regular basis with leaders around the world. It no doubt will continue to.

QUESTION: Venezuela's Huge Chavez has been re-elected for six more years. Will the president try to improve relations with Chavez?

SNOW: Well, the one thing we do is we congratulate the Venezuelan people for having a successful democratic election.

SNOW: And they've made their decision. They're responsible for picking their leaders. And they have a right to participate in free and fair elections without fear of intimidation and without real intimidation.

We remain committed to the Venezuelan people. We support their desire for a democratic future. We commend Manuel Rosales for the dignity he showed in the wake of the election. And we continue to seek a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government on areas of mutual interest.

I bet I know. Go ahead, Les.

QUESTION: You bet you know?

SNOW: I bet I know. Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Members of Congress, the judiciary...

SNOW: I was wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... and all our presidents have been sworn in with the Bible since our nation began, including Jewish members, even though they don't subscribe to the New Testament.

Now, Congressman-elect Ellison of Minnesota has asked that he be sworn in with the Koran.

My question, the first of two: Does the president support this request because he believes the Koran features nothing contrary to the freedoms in our Constitution?

And if so, would he support the Book of Mormon being used to swear in LDS members of Congress if they ever asked for that?

SNOW: That is an issue that the president does not need to adjudicate and therefore will not.

QUESTION: The New York Times reported, and this is a quote, "According to the account in The Hill, which as you know, the Capitol Hill...

SNOW: That's a newspaper, yes.

QUESTION: According to the account in The Hill, "Mr. Webb's initial instinct about how to respond to the president was to slug him," end of quote.

Were the New York Times and The Hill wrong to report this, because it never happened, or did it indeed happen?

SNOW: We've decided not to comment on that issue.

SNOW: What we had was...

QUESTION: That means it did happen.

SNOW: No, it doesn't, because what it's talking about is a state of mind.

There was no threat to slug the president, because I was standing that far from Jim Webb.

But beyond that, we are simply not going to comment.

It was a reception to welcome new members of Congress. We congratulate all of them on their victories. And the rest of it we're just not going to play on it.

QUESTION: Do you think that Webb was courteous?

SNOW: I'm just not playing. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

END

.ETX

Dec 06, 2006 14:24 ET .EOF

Source: CQ Transcriptions

© 2006, Congressional Quarterly Inc., All Rights Reserved


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