New York Times
December 8, 2006
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Kate Zernike
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 — President Bush moved quickly to distance himself on Thursday from the central recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, even as the panel’s co-chairmen opened an intensive lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to press Mr. Bush to adopt their report wholesale.
One day after the study group rattled Washington with its bleak assessment of conditions in Iraq, its Republican co-chairman, James A. Baker III, said the White House must not treat the report “like a fruit salad,” while the Democratic co-chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, called on Congress to abandon its “extremely timid” approach to overseeing the war.
But Mr. Bush, making his first extended comments on the study, seemed to push back against two of its most fundamental recommendations: pulling back American combat brigades from Iraq over the next 15 months, and engaging in direct talks with Iran and Syria. He said he needed to be “flexible and realistic” in making decisions about troop movements, and he set conditions for talks with Iran and Syria that neither country was likely to accept.
The president addressed reporters after meeting in the White House with his closest ally in the war, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. In light of the report’s stark warning that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” Mr. Bush came close to acknowledging mistakes. “You wanted frankness — I thought we would succeed quicker than we did,” the president said to a British reporter who asked for candor. “And I am disappointed by the pace of success.”
But Mr. Bush, and to a lesser extent, Mr. Blair, continued to talk about the war in the kind of sweeping, ideological terms the Iraq Study Group avoided in its report. While the commission settled on stability as a realistic American goal for Iraq, Mr. Bush cast the conflict as part of a broader struggle between good and evil, totalitarianism and democracy.
If extremists emerge triumphant in the Middle East, Mr. Bush warned, “History will look back on our time with unforgiving clarity and demand to know, what happened? How come free nations did not act to preserve the peace?”
While the president said he would give the report serious consideration, he said he did not intend to accept all 79 recommendations. “Congress isn’t going to accept every recommendation in the report,” Mr. Bush said, “and neither will the administration.”
Three other reviews — one by the Pentagon, one by the State Department and one by the National Security Council — are under way, and Mr. Bush reiterated Thursday that while he believed that the nation needed “a new approach” in Iraq, he would make no decision until he received those reports. The current White House plan is for Mr. Bush to receive them over the next week to 10 days, then make a decision about what both he and the Baker-Hamilton commission are calling “the way forward” in Iraq. He intends to announce his plans in a speech before the end of the year, probably before Christmas, according to administration officials.
Pentagon officials are scheduled to brief Mr. Bush soon on the department’s recommendations for a strategy shift in Iraq. The department’s recommendations are likely to differ in some respects from the ideas presented by the Iraq Study Group, particularly over the role to be played by American combat troops over the next 12 to 18 months.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have long stood side by side on the war in Iraq. The White House insisted that Mr. Blair’s appearance on Thursday was not timed to coincide with the release of the report, but it did help them underscore — as Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, put it — that “the president isn’t standing alone.”
The Pentagon recommendations, which are still being completed, are the product of discussions in recent weeks among ground commanders, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian officials in the department. While department officials are likely to present Mr. Bush with one set of recommendations, differences remain.
Some officials still back the idea of a temporary surge in American troops, though the top commander in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, has been urging recently that any troop shortfall to restore security in Baghdad should be filled by more Iraqi forces or by repositioning American forces now in Iraq.
Military officials are also concerned about the Iraq Study Group’s call for pulling back all American combat brigades over the next 15 months, a goal that some uniformed officials see as desirable but possibly unrealistic. Pentagon officials remain skeptical about the timetable, and they are leaning toward an approach that pulls back some combat brigades but keeps others in Baghdad and other violence-ridden areas of Iraq until Iraqi units can better handle the fight on their own.
Though the Iraq Study Group also called for keeping enough American troops in place to provide protection to expanded teams of American advisers attached to Iraqi Army units, Pentagon officials fear that the panel’s recommendations, if adopted, could lead to withdrawals of substantial American troops before the Iraqi units can stand on their own.
The study group said combat brigades could withdraw from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008 if conditions on the ground permitted. Some analysts say that phrasing gives Mr. Bush wiggle room to ignore the call for withdrawal, and on Thursday Mr. Bush seized on that “qualifier,” as he called it. “I thought that made a lot of sense. I’ve always said we’d like our troops out as fast as possible.”
Mr. Bush was sensitive about commenting on the military recommendations put forth by the Iraq Study Group until he heard from his own commanders, according to a senior administration official, who was authorized to discuss the president’s point of view. “When you have your military leadership who are tasked with fighting this war, who are in the process of giving him military advice, you also have to be deferential to that,” this official said.
On Iran and Syria, Mr. Bush stuck to the conditions he set long ago for talks: Iran must abandon its nuclear program, and Syria must give up its support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. “If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it’s easy — just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not to conflict,” he said.
The Baker-Hamilton panel — five Republicans and five Democrats — made an intense plea for a bipartisan consensus, and Mr. Bush’s aides say the president has taken at least that part of their effort to heart. He met Wednesday with leaders of committees that oversee foreign affairs, defense and intelligence, and plans to meet with Republican and Democratic leaders on Friday.
The Wednesday meeting opened with Mr. Bush making an overture to Democrats, the senior official said, and telling them that although they may believe he has made the wrong decisions, they needed to work together. “The president started by saying that, you know, there’s a lot of water under the bridge, but that while we may not share all the views of this report, we ought to use it as an opportunity to work together,” the official said, adding, “I’ve been through a lot of those meetings, and sometimes you feel like people are going through the motions. And I felt yesterday that there was really a sincere effort, both Republican and Democrat, to say this could provide us an opportunity to find common ground.”
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Republican and Democratic senators pressed Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton for ways that Congress could be involved in shaping the president’s response to the report — noting that the original impetus for the study group had come from Capitol Hill. “We’ve now heard from the Iraq Study Group, but we need the White House to become the Iraq Results Group,” said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York.
Mr. Baker replied by asking Congress to accept the report, saying that would put pressure on the administration to do the same. “If the Congress could come together behind supporting, let’s say, utopianly, all of the recommendations of this report, that would do a lot toward moving things downtown, in my opinion,” he said. Both he and Mr. Hamilton argued that cherry-picking the suggestions would not work.
“I hope we don’t treat this like a fruit salad and say, ‘I like this but I don’t like that. I like this, but I don’t like that,’ ” Mr. Baker said. “This is a comprehensive strategy designed to deal with this problem we’re facing in Iraq, but also designed to deal with other problems that we face in the region, and to restore America’s standing and credibility in that part of the world.” David S. Cloud contributed reporting.