An Energized President Defends His Policy

In a White House conversation, Bush warns of what failure in Iraq would mean.

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For more than an hour on Friday afternoon George W. Bush sat down with nine conservative opinion journalists in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. I was one of them. He looks older now than he did when he first became president—the change is more noticeable in person, I think, than on television—but he seemed not at all weary or anguished. To the contrary, he seemed very energized and talked for considerably longer than I think any of us had anticipated. The message that he delivered on Iraq was similar to that in his press conference Thursday and he made reference to the video-conference he had held with three U.S. leaders of Provincial Reconstruction Teams earlier in the day.

Rather than try to extract direct quotations from my audiotape (the White House ground rules forbade posting it online, as I did once before), I'll paraphrase what Bush said and add my own comments. He started off by saying that the United States is in a long ideological struggle with extreme people with a point of view that they want to impose on as many people as possible, and that they see the main roadblock as the United States of America. They are fighting us with asymmetrical tactics; we put highly trained military people in harm's way and they attack them with $100 IEDs. His job is to convince the American people that this is the enemy. He said that nothing will change his belief in the universality of the desire for freedom, that Muslims, like Methodists, want to be free.

The struggle is hard, but it's worth it. It will help determine how secure we are at home. In the long term, we need to defeat their ideology. The ultimate victory will be when these killers are marginalized and their pool of volunteers dries up. To those who ask whether he's sure they're part of al Qaeda, he says they swore allegiance to al Qaeda, the same crowd that killed 3,000 of us. He noted that al Qaeda said they'd launch their fight in Anbar province, but now al Qaeda is the loser in Anbar. The recent successes in Anbar and Diyala show what bottom-up reconciliation can accomplish.

He says the most useful argument to make in support of his policy is to show what failure would mean. It would mean an ascendant radicalism, among both Shia and Sunni Muslims and it would embolden sponsors of terrorism such as Iran. Al Qaeda would be emboldened and would be able to recruit forces and would gain resources for economic blackmail. He regards the period we're in as fundamental in determining whether this nation will be secure in the 21st century.

His overall goal, he says, is to leave us in a position to sustain long-term troop presence in Iraq. The ideal would be a bipartisan consensus that we would be there for a while. The fundamental question is who will make the decision—the polls or Gen. David Petraeus? He is convinced that Petraeus will give a direct and honest account of where we stand in September. We need to provide security before we can expect political reconciliation—the same argument he made in presenting the Initial Benchmark Assessment Report that was presented Thursday, which stated that there was satisfactory progress on eight of 18 benchmarks (most of them security-related), unsatisfactory or mixed progress on eight benchmarks (mostly political, relating to actions or inactions of the Iraqi government), and "too early to tell" on two benchmarks.

With some vigor, Bush said that he understood that this is an unpopular war but said he cannot be making decisions about Iraq and have some parents of the kids who understood the stakes and volunteered think he's making decisions based on the Gallup poll. "You don't know what it's like to be commander-in-chief until you are one."

He notes that when he is speaking, he is speaking not only to the American public but also to the Iraqi people and the enemy. He says that if we fail the enemy will think we are weak and that he thinks that putting additional forces into Iraq this year surprised the enemy a lot.

He says that he spends a lot of time thinking about Korea, that in 1952 there was skepticism that South Korea would make it—presumably, he means develop a prosperous society and a democratic government—and whether the Far East would be a place of stability. Today it is relatively stable and the biggest country there follows the precepts of Adam Smith, not Mao. South Korea went through a tough transition successfully, and Japan is an ally living in peace. He ascribes a lot of that to a continuing U.S. presence in the region—presumably what he foresees and wants to encourage in Iraq and the Middle East. Their development did not always proceed exactly to our liking but over the long haul it has gone in the right direction. Americans must never lose faith in the ability of government to transform a region.

Bush took some swipes at the Democratic Congress, saying as other Republicans have taken to doing that Democrats know how to investigate but not how to legislate. He said he opposed the Democrats' version of the SCHIP children's health insurance program as an incremental step toward nationalizing health care. He reitertated his oft-stated promise not to sign a bill increasing taxes.

Overall, Bush seemed determined that the offensive military operations of the surge continue and did not seem to envisage any drawdown of American forces before Petraeus reports in September. When asked whether current troop levels could be continued past next spring, when many observers say there will not be enough troops to replace them after their year-long stints, he said that some observers had said there would not be enough troops available for the surge forces brought into place from January to June 15 this year. I saw a president determined to go forward, noting signs of progress but conceding that not all the benchmarks, especially the political benchmarks, had been met, determined to achieve something in the nature of victory. He seems to see himself in a position similar to that of Harry Truman in 1951-52, who had job approval ratings lower than Bush's are today but whose determination to stick it out in Korea and prosecute the Cold War are now seen as wise.