President Bush, responding Thursday to a scathing bipartisan assessment of the Iraq war, vigorously rejected the idea that deteriorating conditions there require the United States to scale back its goals and said that he remains committed to “victory in Iraq.”
“I thought we would succeed quicker than we did, and I am disappointed by the pace of success,” Bush said at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But he declared, “I also believe we’re going to succeed. I believe we’ll prevail.”
As he has many times before, Bush cast the Iraq war as part of a global struggle between violent ideological extremists and defenders of freedom and democracy.
“We will stand firm again in this first war of the 21st century,” the president said. “We will defeat the extremists and the radicals. We will help a young democracy prevail in Iraq. And in so doing, we will secure freedom and peace for millions, including our own citizens.”
Bush praised the report of the Iraq Study Group, which was headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, for focusing on “a way forward.”
But he shied from embracing its recommendations on several key issues:
* The report urged the Pentagon to refocus its efforts on training Iraqi forces and suggested that combat troops could begin to pull out as early as 2008, but the president insisted they must stay until victory was achieved. “I’ve always said we’d like our troops out as fast as possible,” he said, but “our commanders will be making recommendations based upon whether or not we’re achieving our stated objective. And the objective, I repeat, is a government which can sustain, govern, and defend itself.”
* The report urged Washington to begin direct talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, but Bush said such talks could not begin until Syria stopped trying to topple the government in Lebanon and Iran made a verifiable commitment to halting its pursuit of enriched uranium -- a critical step toward developing nuclear weapons.
* The commission urged Bush to step up U.S. involvement to mediate the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, but the president said progress there depended on the Palestinians forging a unified government committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict -- a step he said extremists were trying to block.
“Congress isn’t going to accept every recommendation in the report, and neither will the administration.
“But there’s a lot of very important things in the report that we ought to seriously consider,” Bush said.
“To show you how important this one is, I read it, and our guest read it,” Bush added, a reference to Blair, at his side in an auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.
‘We have to adjust’
He acknowledged the need for new approaches to the war and promised to unveil his own in the near future, after he receives additional reports from the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council.
“I know we have to adjust to prevail, but I wouldn’t have our troops in harm’s way if I didn’t believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we’ll succeed,” Bush declared.
While setting no formal deadlines, White House officials are hoping to pull together a broad response to the report and the other studies in time for Bush to present his latest approach to Iraq in a speech to the nation before Christmas.
Blue-ribbon reports, as Bush pointed out, often do no more than gather dust.
But the Baker-Hamilton panel’s submission galvanized Washington, in part because its bipartisan quality -- Baker served as Secretary of State under the current president’s father, George H.W. Bush -- was seen as elevating the war above politics and into the realm of debate over national policy.
The unvarnished assessment of the current situation also seemed to force the White House to acknowledge the scope of the problem.
For more than four years, the report said, the administration had pursued policies that set off a “slide toward chaos” in Iraq -- endangering the whole region and diminishing U.S. standing and influence in the world.
Although Bush said he thought even the report’s authors did not expect him to accept all of its recommendations, Baker said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “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.’ ”
“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,” Baker said.
“So that’s why we say in here it’s important, these are interdependent recommendations we make, and we hope that when people look at them and start thinking about implementing them, they’ll think about implementing all of them, and certainly at least as many as they can.”
Baker and Hamilton spent much of the day defending their approach, saying that criticism -- which ranged from neoconservative backers of the war at one end of the political spectrum to liberal advocates of relatively speedy withdrawal -- was not unexpected and grew out of the desperation that many feel about Iraq.
To critics who suggested the report’s recommendations were unrealistic, Baker asked, “Are you saying we shouldn’t do this because it’s hard?”
In an interview with reporters, the co-chairmen defended their linking the specific problems of Iraq to solving the broader problems revolving around Israel and the Palestinians.
Said Baker: “I guess you heard from some people before the war commenced that the road to Arab-Israeli peace ran through Baghdad.... The road to Arab-Israeli peace runs through Jerusalem.”
Hamilton said attention to Israel and the Palestinians “was about gaining credibility in the region.”
Asked whether Bush, to whom Baker and Hamilton personally delivered the report Wednesday morning, shared their grim assessment of conditions in Iraq, Hamilton said: “Well, he’s getting closer.”
At Bush’s news conference with Blair, a British reporter noted that the Iraq Study Group had said the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating,” and that Bush had called the increase in attacks “unsettling,” wording that might suggest the president was “still in denial” about conditions there.
‘It’s bad in Iraq’
“It’s bad in Iraq,” Bush said, pausing several seconds before adding: “Does that help?”
As he expanded his response, his voice grew louder and he gestured with his right hand.
He formed a fist, opened his hand wide, and formed a fist again.
“I understand how tough it is. And I’ve been telling the American people how tough it is,” Bush said.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.