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President Bush Defends His Decisions in the Iraq War

March 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The president was asked right off the bat about a pessimistic assessment of the Iraq situation offered Sunday by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

QUESTION: Do you agree with Mr. Allawi that Iraq has fallen into civil war?

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I do not. There are other voices coming out of Iraq, by the way, other than Mr. Allawi — who I know, by the way, like; he’s a good fellow.

Listen, we all recognize that there is a violence, that there’s sectarian violence, but the way I look at this situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war.

A couple of indicators are that the army didn’t bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united. And as General Casey pointed out, they did a, you know, arguably a good job in helping to make sure the country stayed united.

Secondly, I was pleased to see the religious leaders stand up. Ayatollah Sistani, for example, was very clear in his denunciation of violence and the need for the country to remain united. The political leaders who represent different factions of the Iraqi society have committed themselves to moving forward on a unity government.

But I see progress. You know, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you know, he’s just kind of optimistic for the sake of optimism.” Well, look, I believe we’re going to succeed.

And I understand how tough it is; don’t get me wrong. I mean, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. It’s — I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night. But I believe the Iraqis — this is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn’t. And that’s a positive development.

MARGARET WARNER: The president said several times that he is at once optimistic and realistic about the situation in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I am confident, or I believe, I’m optimistic we’ll succeed; if not, I’d pull our troops out. If I didn’t believe we had a plan for victory, I wouldn’t leave our people in harm’s way.

I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. I think most Americans understand we need to win, but they’re concerned about whether or not we can win. So one of the reasons I go around the country is to explain why I think we can win.

And so I would say, yes, I’m optimistic about being able to achieve a victory, but I’m also realistic. I fully understand the consequences of this war. I understand people’s lives are being lost, but I understand — I also understand the consequences of not achieving our objective, by leaving too early.

Iraq would become a place of instability, a place from which the enemy can plot, plan and attack. I believe that they want to hurt us again. And therefore, I know we need to stay on the offense against this enemy.

They’ve declared Iraq to be the central front, and therefore, we’ve got to make sure we win that. And I believe we will.

QUESTION: Do you feel that personally you’ve ever gotten bad advice in the conduct of the war in Iraq? And do you believe Rumsfeld should resign?

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I don’t believe he should resign. I think he’s done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon.

Listen, every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy, not just the war plan we executed in Iraq, but the war plans that have been executed throughout the history of warfare.

In other words, the enemy changes tactics, and we’ve got to change tactics, too. And no question that we’ve had to adjust our tactics on the ground. And perhaps the clearest example is in the training of Iraqi security forces.

When we got into Iraq, we felt like we needed to train a security force that was capable for defending the country from an outside threat. And then it became apparent that the insurgents and Zarqawi were able to spread their poison and their violence in a ruthless way, and therefore we had to make sure that the Iraqi forces were able to deal with the internal threat.

And we adjusted our tactics and started spending a lot more time getting the Iraqis up and running and then embedding our troops with the Iraqis. And it’s been a success. But, no question about it, we missed some time as we adjusted our tactics.

QUESTION: Is there a point at which having the American forces in Iraq becomes more a part of the problem than a part of the solution? Can you say that you will not keep American troops in there if they’re caught in a crossfire in a civil war? And can you say to the American people, assure them that there will come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Bob, the decisions about our troop levels will be made by General Casey and the commanders on the ground. They’re the ones who can best judge whether or not a presence of coalition troops create more of a problem than a solution — than to be a part of the solution.

Secondly, I’ve answered the question on civil war. Our job is to make sure the civil war doesn’t happen. But there will be — but if there is sectarian violence, it’s the job of the Iraqi forces, with coalition help, to separate those sectarian forces.

The third part of your question?

QUESTION: Will there come a day — and I’m not asking you when, not asking for a timetable — will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH: That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.

QUESTION: So it won’t happen on your watch?

GEORGE W. BUSH: You mean a complete withdrawal? That’s a timetable. You know, I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.

MARGARET WARNER: So just how realistic was the president’s assessment today of the situation in and prospects for Iraq? We get two views of that from two former national security officials with bipartisan credentials.

James Woolsey was director of central intelligence under President Clinton, and he has served on the Defense Policy Board, a group that advises Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

Flynt Leverett is a former CIA Middle East analyst and served on the National Security Council staff during this President Bush’s first term. He was then an adviser to the John Kerry presidential campaign and is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to you, both.

Gentlemen, as we all know, the president and the administration have been criticized for not being realistic about the situation on the ground in Iraq in the past. How realistic do you think he was?

What did you hear, Jim Woolsey? And did you hear a shift in tone at all on this question of being realistic about what’s happening?

JAMES WOOLSEY, Former Director of Central Intelligence: There has been something of a shift over months toward a somewhat more cautious statement. And I think his optimism was reasonably moderated, and the realism was not far off.

I bet they wish they had been more concerned with some of their earlier statements.

I think that there is a reasonable chance that the U.S. military’s adaptability and abilities will pull this out in Iraq, but it certainly is going to be still difficult. And you also have to worry, of course, about Iranian domination in southern Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: One, did you hear a more realistic tone? And do you agree with former Director Woolsey that it is possible now in Iraq to be, as the president said he is, both realistic and optimistic?

FLYNT LEVERETT, Former CIA Middle East Analyst: I think that there may be some shifts in rhetorical nuance from the president these days, but unfortunately I think he’s still operating from a deeply flawed assessment of what the problem is in Iraq.

He seems to believe that the problem is some combination of an insurgency rooted in one of Iraq’s sectarian communities, the Sunnis, combined with an essentially failed state at the national level. And he has a strategy that’s meant to address those problems.

I think that it’s a very different problem that we’re facing. We are, in fact, in civil war in Iraq, in a communal civil war, albeit one that’s still being fought at this point with relatively low-intensity means.

But the strategy that the president is pursuing to deal with essentially a counterinsurgency problem, if it’s applied in a communal civil war, it’s not just not going to work, it’s going to make the security situation worse.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that when he said flatly he disagreed with the former prime minister about a civil war that there he just, quote, “doesn’t get it”?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I’m afraid that’s the case, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he assesses the civil war situation correctly?

JAMES WOOLSEY: We don’t have Antietam and Fredericksburg and large armies clashing. What’s here going on, I think, in Iraq is probably more analogous to what was called Bleeding Kansas, the killings between the abolitionists and the slavery advocates in Kansas in the years leading up to the Civil War.

It’s kind of a semantic dispute, but civil war really does connote for most Americans something with far larger clashes, and armies clashing, and so forth, and we don’t have that yet. It’s a serious situation, but I don’t think I would call it yet civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: But to pick up on Flynt Leverett’s point, do you think they have the right strategy to avert a civil war?

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think that the U.S. military has moved from so- called search-and-destroy toward protecting areas that they deal with. And they’re also doing a better job now training Iraqi forces, and Iraqi forces are coming more and more into being able to operate with some American assistance, not completely on their own.

I think the real problem is SCIRI, the organization of Hakim, that is so tied to Iran..

MARGARET WARNER: The party that was very close to Iran, the Shiite party.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Yes, in the south. Because if, when we talk about withdrawing and being able to turn things over to the Iraqis, if one of those groups is Hakim and his pro-Iranian organization, or Adel Abdul Mahdi, his candidate for prime minister, there’s more than one way to lose a potential civil war. And one is to let Iran control southern Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain more of what you meant, Flynt Leverett, about the fact that you don’t think their strategy is designed to handle what you called, I think, an incipient civil war.

FLYNT LEVERETT: A civil war that’s being fought for the moment with relatively low-intensity means.

Mr. Woolsey is right; we’re not seeing Antietam-scale battles at this point. But make no mistake: This is a communal civil war that’s going on. We are having 50 or 60 killings a day, taking place almost entirely along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The reason I think the current strategy is misplaced, as Mr. Woolsey just described it, it places a very heavy emphasis on beefing up so-called Iraqi security forces to deal with this counterinsurgency problem. The real flaw in this strategy is that what we describe as Iraqi security forces are not seen as Iraqi security forces, certainly not by most Sunnis in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning they’re seen as mostly Shiite forces?

FLYNT LEVERETT: The Iraqi army is seen as essentially a Shia and Kurdish militia with nicer uniforms and better weapons, thanks to the United States. It is not seen as a genuinely national army.

We continue to train units almost entirely on a single-sect basis, either Kurdish or Shia units, very, very few Sunni units. And if you really are dealing with a civil war, to put that kind of force in a privileged position and give it responsibility, supposedly for national security, it is only going to inflame communal tensions and make the situation worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you disagree with that assessment about the Iraqi military? And if not, what does that say about the realism behind the president’s assertion, which also Secretary Rumsfeld has made, that, if there’s a real civil war, an Antietam-style or something close to it, that it’s the Iraqi military that would take care of it?

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think the U.S. Military has done a better job than that of training up the Iraqi military. It’s true many of the units are still focused on being largely Shiite or Kurdish and some Sunnis.

But one really has to get the Sunni sheikhs to split off from any association with the insurgency and with Zarqawi. And I think that the remaining Baathists who are part of the insurgency are doing a lot of the killing of both Shiites and Sunnis.

They’re trying — Zarqawi, too — are trying to provoke a civil war. I think they’re not quite there yet, but they’re working very hard at doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me move onto another point he made. He was asked flatly: Should Secretary Rumsfeld resign? He said absolutely not. He essentially said he’s the man to continue leading this war. Do you agree?

JAMES WOOLSEY: I would not ask Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. I think we made some mistakes early in the war; one makes mistakes in every war.

MARGARET WARNER: But now?

JAMES WOOLSEY: But I think that he, on the whole, has done a good job of transformation in the Pentagon. And I think he is someone who works very hard at trying to bring about a positive result in this war, and I think we have a reasonable chance of doing it with him. No, I wouldn’t ask him to resign.

MARGARET WARNER: Flynt Leverett?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think, by any reasonable standard of accountability, Secretary Rumsfeld would have been gone a long time ago. But I think it’s difficult for the president to do that, because for him to do that would mean at least implicitly that he is admitting that some very, very fundamental, strategic mistakes have been made.

This could open up the whole strategy moving forward to a serious examination, and I think he doesn’t want to encourage that. And so he will keep Secretary Rumsfeld on.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about yet another thing he said which is related, which is that he said part of being realistic is being realistic about the consequences if we left too early.

And Vice President Cheney said much the same today, as well. He said basically we would — if we left too early, Iraq would become a place of instability and essentially a new staging area for terrorists to start plotting against the U.S.

Is he right that part of being realistic is, now that we’re in this fix — not that he puts it that way — but that there is a downside to leaving too early?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Sure, there’s a downside to leaving early; I’m not advocating leaving too early. What I am saying is that staying with the wrong strategy is not going to bring you success. It is going to set the stage for policy failure with many of the same consequences that would come about if we were to cut and run, so to speak.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Leaving too early would be a disaster. I think we have a dual job, as I said: one of keeping southern Iraq from falling under Iran’s dominance, and the other is doing what we can to help the Iraqis put down the insurgency and stop Al Qaeda in Iraq and Zarqawi.

I think that the strategy they have now worked themselves to, more slowly than would have been good, is a reasonable one: the training up of the Iraqi forces; and the spreading out their control; and protection of the Iraqi people as they fight the insurgency.

But this is not going to be easy. And they would have had a lot easier time with the American people if they had given the kind of assessment the president did today two or three years ago, instead of having all these old quotes crop up and make them look like they were far too optimistic. I think that’s the heart of the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, something he closed with today was he essentially refused to commit himself to the proposition that American forces would be out of Iraq by the end of his term, which is three more years. What did you make of that?

JAMES WOOLSEY: I think he’s right not to put a timetable on anything. I think what we ought to do is do what we need to do in order to have the best chance of prevailing.

It might be that a new Iraqi government would want some residual American forces to stay there for some time; it might be that it would not. But I don’t think he should commit to pulling all American forces out now for the duration of his term or any time later. I think it might be necessary, and the Iraqis might want us to stay there, or a new Iraqi government might, for some time.

MARGARET WARNER: Did that sound new to you?

FLYNT LEVERETT: No, the president has consistently resisted putting a timetable on our involvement, and in that sense it wasn’t new.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just interrupt you on that, because he wasn’t asked to put a timetable. The question was — now I can’t remember the exact question — but he was asked an open-ended question about, can you envision when all American forces will be out? And he said that will be up to future presidents, so he put a future timetable on it.

FLYNT LEVERETT: I guess, in that sense, by saying it’s not going to be on his watch that all of the troops come home, that might be something new.

But, again, I would just return to the point: It’s not just a question of staying the course or not leaving early. If you stay and you’re pursuing the wrong strategy, it can end up being just as disastrous as withdrawing prematurely. And that’s the course I’m afraid we’re embarked upon.

MARGARET WARNER: Flynt Leverett, Jim Woolsey, thank you.