Brushing Aside Critics, Bush Moves to Sell Iraq Strategy
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and STEVEN LEE MYERS | September 13, 2007
WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 — When top Democratic leaders visited him at the White House this week, President Bush told them he wanted to “find common ground” on Iraq. But when the president said he planned to “start doing some redeployment,” the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, cut him off.
“No you’re not, Mr. President,” Ms. Pelosi interjected. “You’re just going back to the pre-surge level.”
The testy exchange, recounted by three people who attended the session or were briefed on it, provides a peek into how Mr. Bush will try to sell Americans on his unpopular Iraq strategy when he addresses the nation on Thursday evening. With lawmakers openly skeptical of his troop buildup, Mr. Bush will cast his plan for a gradual, limited withdrawal as a way to bring a divided America together — even as he resists demands from those who want him to move much faster.
The prime-time address will be the eighth Mr. Bush on Iraq since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the latest iteration of his efforts to sketch what he calls “the way forward.” It will be the first time Mr. Bush has described a plan for troop reductions, a radical departure for a president who has repeatedly defied his critics’ calls to bring the soldiers home.
Yet as he outlines his plan, the president’s critics say Mr. Bush is trying to have it both ways by taking credit for a drawdown that has been envisioned since he first announced the current buildup on Jan. 10 — and one that had to be carried out unless Mr. Bush was willing to take the politically unpalatable step of further extending soldiers’ tours.The White House declined today to preview Mr. Bush’s speech, but one senior administration official, speaking anonymously to avoid upstaging the president, said the reductions would be heavily conditioned on the situation in Iraq and would fall far short of the rapid withdrawal Democrats want. Under the plan, at least 130,000 American troops would remain in Iraq next July, about the same as before the buildup began, with any decisions on further withdrawals likely to be postponed until at least next March. The planned drawdowns between now and July 2008 may also fall short of the 30,000 that many assumed the president would suggest in the wake of this week’s testimony by Gen.l David H. Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq. But, the senior official said, Mr. Bush’s ultimate goal would be a sustainable force of around 10 combat brigades, half the number there now, at the end of his presidency.
“We want bipartisanship,” this official said, “but not to the point where it sacrifices success.”
Mr. Bush has repeatedly asked Americans to give him another chance in Iraq, and Thursday night will be no different. “His main goal at this critical juncture,” said another senior official, also speaking anonymously, “is to ask Americans to stop and take a fresh look.”
Whether they will take that look remains to be seen. This week’s Congressional testimony from General Petraeus was supposed to be a defining moment in Washington’s debate over the Iraq war.
But in fact, as was suggested by Pelosi-Bush exchange during a White House meeting on Tuesday, very few minds have been changed.
“We all made clear that merely bringing back the surge troops is no change in policy,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who also attended the White House meeting. But he conceded that it could be tough for Democrats to force a change. “We have the public behind us,” he said, ‘’but we don’t have the votes in the Senate.”
The president, meanwhile, remains as determined as ever to see the troop buildup through. Aides say he returned from his trip to Anbar Province last week convinced that military progress in Iraq will spawn the sort of political reconciliation that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has so far been unable to achieve.
Now, said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the White House, it is up to Mr. Bush to make that case successfully to the American people.
“The question that Democrats and some Republicans are asking is, ‘Even if the military strategy is succeeding, how do we get to political stability,’ ” Mr. Black said. “That’s a fair question, and he needs to at least answer that to say there’s a fair chance of getting there and it’s worth continuing the military effort to give it a chance.”
White House officials say that Mr. Bush is in a much better place now than he was in July, when leading Republican lawmakers like Senators Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana publicly broke with the president, calling for a change of course.
At that time, top White House officials like Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, were openly nervous about the prospect of losing Republican support for the war. But in the nearly two months since then, Mr. Bush’s communications team waged an aggressive — and, many Republicans say, largely successful — campaign to use the Congressional recess in August to take control of the debate on Iraq.
Buoyed by reports of improving conditions on the ground, the White House scheduled a series of presidential speeches, including one in which Mr. Bush contended that a hasty retreat from Iraq would produce carnage of the sort seen in Southeast Asia after Americans pulled out of Vietnam.
“That was an important moment because that showed that the president was not going to cede certain arguments and cede certain ground,” said Pete Wehner, a former policy adviser to Mr. Bush who left the White House in July, referring to the Vietnam speech. “Vietnam was already out there as a narrative, and the president took it and said, ‘Well, there’s actually another story.’ ”
The strategy culminated with Mr. Bush’s surprise trip to Anbar Province last week — just as lawmakers were returning to the Capitol. But by this week, when General Petraeus testified that he would recommend a preliminary reduction of five brigades between now and July, the White House seemed to have lost some of its edge.
Republicans like Senator Susan Collins of Maine have openly questioned the Petraeus plan, and several said they would reserve judgment about whether to support the president until after he delivers his speech. Among them is Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, who said it is too soon to predict whether Mr. Bush will be able to retain enough Republican support to see his strategy through.
“This forward strategy is going to be watched everywhere,” Mr. Warner said, “and it is then going into the jaws of the presidential elections, a drumbeat of people in the United States who are saying to themselves, ‘We’re sacrificing all of these things, our sons, our daughters, our money, and the Iraqis aren’t performing as the president said on Jan. 10.’ I mean, there’s a swirl into which this new strategy goes.”