Bush says success allows for troop cuts
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush contended on Thursday night that his plan to begin withdrawing some troops from Iraq gradually was based on a principle he called "return on success," saying that progress made so far could be squandered by the deeper and speedier reductions that the war's opponents have demanded.
Bush called for an "enduring relationship" with Iraq that would keep American forces there "beyond my presidency," arguing that a free and friendly Iraq was essential to the security of the region and the United States. He cast the war in Iraq as a vital part of a strategy in the Middle East to defeat Al Qaeda and counter Iran.
Evidently sensitive to how lower troop levels might be seen — by enemies abroad and critics at home — he emphasized in his address that early drawdowns were now possible only because the strategy of sending more troops to Iraq eight months ago had worked. He did not once use the word withdrawal.
"The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home," Bush said, trying once again to win support for a war in Iraq that remains deeply unpopular.
The speech was the first time since the war began four and a half years ago that Bush had outlined a plan for troop reductions, to bring levels down from the current high of 169,000. He held out the prospect of more reductions but committed only to a plan that would withdraw by next July the additional combat units he ordered there in January, leaving a main body of more than 130,000 troops intact.
In the Democratic response, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, said that Bush was making the case for an "endless and unlimited military presence in Iraq," and he vowed that Congress would prevent it.
"Once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it," said Reed, an author of a Democratic proposal that would withdraw most combat troops by next spring, but still leave a significant force in Iraq to provide training and security.
Bush's 18-minute address culminated several weeks of political stagecraft that included several speeches and a presidential trip to Iraq but also relied heavily on General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to make the public case for a strategy overseen by the commander in chief.
While promoting progress in Iraq, Bush conceded that his vision for Iraq would be a difficult one to achieve. That acknowledgment was punctuated with macabre timing by the assassination in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, on Thursday of a Sunni sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, who had led a group of tribal leaders into an alliance with the United States and who had met the president during his trip to Iraq only 10 days ago.
The White House clearly sought to maximize the political benefits from the announcement of a troop reduction, which some military officials said would have had to happen anyway unless the administration took the politically unpalatable step of extending troops' tours in Iraq to longer than 15 months. The first 5,700 troops affected by the pullback would leave Iraq this year — "by Christmas," Bush said — and roughly 18,000 more would do so by mid-July 2008.
Still, other forces of what came to be called "the surge" could remain and new ones could be sent, administration and military officials said Thursday. As a result, the number of troops in Iraq could be higher in the summer of 2008 than it was in the fall of 2006 before the surge began, a fact likely to infuriate Bush's critics and upset even some Republican supporters.
Bush's approach sets the stage for a legislative clash beginning next week in the Senate as Democrats renew their efforts to put together a bipartisan coalition to win approval of legislation forcing a change in policy in Iraq. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Bush was "trying to run out the clock on his failed strategy and leave the hard decisions to the next president."
Many Democrats, including the presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have said some American military presence should continue in Iraq beyond Bush's presidency. But his critics take it for granted that Bush envisions a presence much bigger and longer than the Democrats would endorse.
Bush, in his remarks, seemed to hope that by beginning a withdrawal, it would mollify those who were increasingly alarmed by the size and cost of the commitment and unite Americans behind the war in a way they have rarely been from the start. "The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together," he said.
That seemed unlikely.
Democratic leaders did not wait for the formal remarks before they began to render a judgment. "He wants an open-ended commitment with an open wallet by the American people," said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
As he has in previous addresses, the president sought to recast, or at least rephrase, the war's overarching purpose. While the war began with an American invasion of Iraq, Bush said the United States and Iraq's current government had the same "moral and strategic imperatives" — to forge an alliance with political, economic and military ties.
"We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours," he said, citing the role played in Iraq by Iran and its allies, and by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the home-grown Sunni militant group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led. The extent of its links to Osama bin Laden's network is unclear.
"If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened," Bush said. "Al Qaeda could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries. Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region. Extremists could control a key part of the global energy supply."
At times, Bush offered a more upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq than others have, including a flurry of reports that preceded Thursday's speech. At times, his view seemed even rosier than Petraeus's did.
His descriptions noted positive developments — "Ordinary life is beginning to return," he said — while leaving out the grim realities of life in the shadow of death, without basic regular electricity or other services.
He warned that pulling out of Iraq could cause "a humanitarian nightmare" but did not acknowledge that millions of Iraqis have already been displaced or have fled to neighboring countries.
He noted that Iraq's government was "sharing oil revenues with the provinces" without mentioning that discussions on a draft law to institutionalize the process — a key benchmark dictated by Congress — appear to have collapsed.
Bush and other officials had pointed to the new alliance with the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province as one of the most hopeful developments in Iraq since the "surge" began. The national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told the president of Sheik Abdul Sattar's death just as Bush finished his daily political briefing on Thursday morning.
This week's testimony of Petraeus and the American ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, had elated White House officials, who by midweek said they felt they would easily avoid any significant defections by Republican lawmakers and thus face no real legislative constraints in how the administration conducts the war.
Some Republican strategists, in fact, expressed concern that Bush even gave Thursday night's speech, suggesting, on condition of anonymity to shield themselves from retribution, that it would have been better to let the general have the last word.
Still, it has been clear this week that the Democrats have too few votes to impose any real constraints on Bush's policy, leaving the war's harshest critics frustrated and angry. With so many troops remaining in Iraq well into 2008, the debate over the war is likely to intensify during the presidential campaign.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, on Thursday night expressed confidence that the Republicans could continue to block any effort to set a withdrawal date, and he said he believed that most of his colleagues were satisfied with the president's approach.
"The plan General Petraeus has laid out meets a demand that many of my members have been looking for, which is some sign of success that will allow us to reduce our forces in the near future," McConnell said.
Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, on his way back from a two-day trip to Iraq, continued to herald signs of success he saw. But Boehner himself became part of the bitter debate over Iraq, saying in response to a question posed on CNN that "the investment that we're making today will be a small price if we're able to stop Al Qaeda here."
Democrats seized on the remark, accusing him of demeaning the death toll in Iraq, which as of Wednesday stood at 3,765, though aides said he referred only to the financial costs.