On the War, Determined to Go His Own Way

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ever since Republicans were routed last month in what was widely seen as a repudiation of his Iraq strategy, President Bush has been busily listing how his policies there will not be changing.

There will be no timetable for removing American troops, no high-level dialogue with Iran and Syria, and no slackening of support for the widely criticized government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Meanwhile, White House aides are reported to be pushing a major "surge" of troops to Baghdad while preparing a fresh infusion of tens of billions of dollars for the war effort.

Yesterday, in an interview with The Washington Post, while acknowledging that the United States is not winning in Iraq, Bush bluntly dismissed the suggestion that the midterm elections meant voters want to bring the mission in that country to closure. He said he interpreted the election results "as people not satisfied with the progress" in Iraq.

"A lot of people understand that if we leave Iraq, there will be dire consequences," Bush said in the Oval Office. "They expect this administration to listen with people, to work with Democrats, to work with the military, to work with the Iraqis to put a plan in place that achieves the objective. There's not a lot of people saying, 'Get out now.' Most Americans are saying, 'We want to achieve the objective.' "

The comments were another strong indication of the president's determination to chart his own way forward on Iraq, no matter the election results nor any amount of free advice from senior statesmen of past administrations. Bush may well announce a major drawdown of the U.S. presence in Iraq when he appears before the nation after the turn of the year, but that possibility seems remote after statements from him and his aides that suggest an intention to keep the basic contours of the Iraq policy in place -- and possibly even raise the ante by sending more troops.

"There hasn't been a change from the president," observed Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the incoming House majority leader. "The president may be trapped in his own policy, sensing, 'If I don't succeed, it will be a huge blot on my record, and so therefore I have no choice but to try to succeed.' "

Hoyer pointedly added: "I don't think the Democratic Congress is going to say, 'Well, that's okay.' "

Clad in a gray suit and red tie, Bush was relaxed and engaged during the 25-minute interview, going out of his way to say how much he enjoys his relationship with the media despite indications to the contrary. At the end, he talked a bit about recent books -- he mentioned having just finished "King Leopold's Ghost," an account of the plundering of the Congo in the late 19th century -- and expressed some befuddlement at the suggestion that some people do not think he reads.

He gestured at the portrait on his office wall of Abraham Lincoln by George H. Story when asked why he has fired no generals when Lincoln fired a number before settling on Ulysses S. Grant. "Is that what triggered your questioning, looking at Abe?" he asked, before explaining how important it was, in his view, to adhere to the command structure at the Pentagon.

As he reviews what to do in Iraq, Bush said he is considering all options and "listening to a lot of good people who have got different opinions about how to proceed." But he left little doubt that he continues to believe in achieving "victory," a goal that many foreign policy experts believe is fast slipping out of reach. When his new policy comes out next month, he said, the American people will see "a new way forward to achieve an important objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself."

For the second time in a week, Bush noted the number of dead insurgents, something that he has been extremely reluctant to do, given the way such numerical indicators presented a false picture of progress during the Vietnam War. But perhaps seeking to keep the American people engaged in the unpopular mission, Bush noted that U.S. ground forces in Iraq in the past two months have killed or captured nearly 5,900 people.

"My point in making that point is our troops and coalition troops are on the offense in a lot of areas," Bush said.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he could not think of anyone more "stubborn and isolated" than the president. "The American people have spoken, and voices inside and outside the national security apparatus . . . have all come to the conclusion: Doing more of the same and hoping for a different result is not going to be successful," Emanuel said.

More than stubbornness may explain the president's adherence to his basic policy despite election results and polls suggesting a widespread desire for change from the electorate. Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, said it is not at all clear to him that the public wants out of Iraq, and said he believes many pundits have overinterpreted the election results.

Americans "are not going to support a strategy that looks like more of the same, and they shouldn't," said Kagan, who has met with the president to discuss his idea of bringing more troops to Iraq. But he said the electorate may be willing to support a more forceful strategy for victory: "The choice is pretty stark -- between doing what's necessary to win, which includes changing strategy and committing the necessary resources, and losing, and I don't think the American people are ready to lose yet if they think if there is a chance to win."

Bush himself seemed to hang on to this possibility during the interview yesterday. The risk is that if his prescription for what to do in Iraq is insufficiently bold, he will find himself back in the same stalemate six months from now. "If he is unable to change course and he is unable to produce results, he is going to be in trouble," said Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner, who was on the staff of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council.

But Bush may not be thinking in those terms. "I, of all people, would like to see the troops come home," he said during the interview. "But I don't want them to come home without achieving our objective, because I understand what happens if there's failure. And I'm going to keep repeating this over and over again, that I believe we're in an ideological struggle that is -- that our country will be dealing with for a long time."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company