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President Bush Dismisses Calls for U.S. Troop Withdrawal

November 30, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Today’s Bush-Maliki summit and the events in Iraq, Washington and elsewhere surrounding it, all as seen by Dennis Ross, a State Department official and Middle East negotiator in the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post. He’s covered the Middle East since the 1970s and has traveled to Iraq several times since the 2003 invasion.

What was accomplished today at this meeting, David, in your opinion?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, the two managed to get together and, in a sense, were on the same page. The president said he wants to accelerate the transfer of authority to Iraqi forces, which is what Maliki says he wants. The president says he wants our troops to get out as soon as possible; I think he means that.

And he’s saying, you know, we want the same thing that the Iraqi prime minister wants. In that sense, after a period in which there was the appearance of a real disagreement between the two, they appear to be on the same page.

I think beneath those statements — and at these press conferences after summits, you always get a kind of bland readout — I think that we can see that the administration is determined to go forward with changes in policy. I think that the Bush administration has been making its own review, even as the Baker-Hamilton commission has been making its review.

And in the next several weeks, we’re going to hear some things that will signal to us that there will be changes over the next year.

JIM LEHRER: But with Maliki, Dennis? Do you agree that the president is sticking with Maliki at this point?

DENNIS ROSS, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Oh, I think he’s sticking with Maliki, because I think he has nobody else to bid on.

JIM LEHRER: There is no option, right?

DENNIS ROSS: Not for the president. I think Maliki came into this meeting, and he was feeling actually in a stronger position because of the release of the Hadley memo.

JIM LEHRER: Now, explain that. Why would that make him feel stronger?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, first, he adopted the position that he wouldn’t meet with the president and King Abdullah the day before, which was him determining something that had been planned by the White House, obviously.

Second, he was coming in — in a sense, he could go on the offensive, and the president might be on the defensive. How could you release this memo the day before this meeting, in a sense portraying him as if he’s a vassal, someone that you can manipulate?

So he comes in from the standpoint of being able to say, “Look, this is what I need from you. You haven’t been giving it to me.” And I was struck by the president in the press conference, almost seeming defensive, saying, “He’s frustrated with me because we haven’t been providing him the means to be able to go ahead and do the job.”

So I was really struck by that, and it suggested to me that in private he had actually been quite strong with the president.

Achieving stability in Iraq

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
But the big issue is: Can you forge some kind of national compact or not? You solve the political problems, the security problems will follow, in my judgment, not the reverse.

JIM LEHRER: So you use the word "means", "tools" is another word that has been used, that Maliki doesn't have the means and the tools. What are they talking about? What is it that he doesn't have?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think -- first, I'm struck by the fact that you're three-and-a-half years into this, why don't they have the means and the tools? What have we been doing all this time, number one?

Number two, what Maliki wants is he says he wants to be in a position where he's able to determine what the security policy is for the Iraqis. He's able to, in fact, control the Iraqi forces.

Now, right now, we do that. Our forces do that. He wants that much more control. I must tell you, it's logical in a certain sense, but there are certainly many Iraqis who fear he will use these in a sectarian way.

JIM LEHRER: Because he's a Shia, and Muqtada al-Sadr is one of his colleagues, and they're having -- his militia is one of the big problems?

DENNIS ROSS: That's right. That's one of the big things that many people fear.

I would like to see -- and I would have liked the president to have done, and I'm not sure he did -- I would've liked for him to have said to the prime minister, "You're right. We're going to do that, but we'll do that as we see you taking big political decisions."

Our leverage is that we can turn over things to him that he wants. Now, we should tie that to his acting on things we want, not necessarily taking on Sadr. I think that's too hard for him right now.

JIM LEHRER: We have to live with Sadr?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think for the time being you have to. But the big issue is: Can you forge some kind of national compact or not? You solve the political problems, the security problems will follow, in my judgment, not the reverse.

JIM LEHRER: OK, how do you see that, the means and the tools?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think, first, that Dennis is right, that there was some mutual snubs going on in the preliminaries to the meeting.

JIM LEHRER: A little flexing of muscle?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think that Maliki's dignity surely was wounded by the release of the Hadley memo. You know, if the White House thought that that would put him on his heels, I think that was a tactical mistake. You know...

The Hadley memo

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
My sense, watching what happened today, was that the United States is making a decision to accept Iraqi democracy as imperfect and violent as it is.

JIM LEHRER: You think maybe the White House actually released that?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, you know, I don't want to think that governments do that. It seems to me a sort of childish thing to do, to put out a private memo about a conversation...

JIM LEHRER: From the national security adviser to the president of the United States?

DAVID IGNATIUS: It strikes me as farfetched. That said, you know, it was a deliberate leak by somebody who thought it would have the effect of making Maliki more malleable, and I think that was an unwise decision.

I think that, you know, Maliki is a weak prime minister of Iraq. The fundamental problem here is that we're looking for a strong executive to make tough decisions, to take the militias, somehow bring them into the Iraqi military, and build that military up so it's strong enough to run the country so our troops can leave.

And we're stuck with what, you know, I've heard one official describe as a second-tier bureaucrat. I mean, Maliki is not the most impressive, even in this group of Iraqi officials. But he's the person who's been elected.

My sense, watching what happened today, was that the United States is making a decision to accept Iraqi democracy as imperfect and violent as it is. And that means accept the leadership of the Shiites and their designated representative, who is now Maliki, and accept their internal politics, including the Muqtada al-Sadr militia.

I think Dennis is right that right now we're reckoning that that's the strongest political force on the streets. Maliki isn't strong enough to take them on. We'd like to help him become strong enough to do that, but not tomorrow.

Exiting Iraq

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
I think it's an illusion to think that the neighbors are going to be able to fix what's going on within Iraq. The problems in Iraq are internal to Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: So what do you make of the president's use of this term "graceful exit"? There will be no graceful exit, he said. I mean, that's how he used the term. I put in a different context, in a context.

DENNIS ROSS: Well, first of all, let's hope there's not an ungraceful exit.

JIM LEHRER: Right, OK.

DENNIS ROSS: But I think what he means by it is he is not going to be driven by an artificial timetable. He's been consistent on that throughout. I think that the Iraqi Study Group basically decided that no way are you going to be able to offer a set of recommendations that includes that that he will accept.

And you don't want to present something that's dead on arrival with him. So I think he's signaling once again, "Don't talk to me about timetables. Yes, we might talk about certain kinds of redeployments. Yes, we're certainly going to do more"...

JIM LEHRER: Gradual withdrawal, but not...

DENNIS ROSS: Well, even here I would say he's still going to want to tie it to, what are the conditions on the ground? He's not going to want to tie it to what is a kind of abstract period, that you simply say, "We're getting out in this period of time, regardless of what's happening on the ground."

JIM LEHRER: So the Hamilton-Baker thing, the Baker-Hamilton committee, the Iraq Study Group, whatever, it comes out in less than a week now.

DAVID IGNATIUS: It comes out on the 6th of December.

JIM LEHRER: On the 6th. There's been a lot of leaks about it, gradual withdrawal, talk to Iran and Syria, et cetera. Fit that into Bush-Maliki today.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I have a slightly different reading of the president's comment about there being no graceful exit. One thing that we expect that Baker-Hamilton will recommend is some kind of regional conference that gathers Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, two countries that we do not talk to.

JIM LEHRER: Then who else would be there?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, you know, you'd have the Saudis, you'd have the Turks, you'd have the Jordanians. You know, you'd have all of the key nations...

JIM LEHRER: And that would be everybody? And Syria and Iran could come to that?

DAVID IGNATIUS: They could come to that. And I think that when Baker and Hamilton talk about this, certainly, you know, when people have written about it, they've seen a kind of graceful diplomatic solution that gathers all the neighbors and sort of gracefully applies a tourniquet, if you will, to this bleeding mess of Iraq, so that we over time can stabilize things and begin to pull out.

I mean, I thought that's what the president was talking about when he said there will not be a graceful exit brokered by two adversaries. And the reason is that I think the White House has concluded that we're just not going to get any help that's meaningful from either Iran or Syria.

I think the administration would love to be engaged with Iran in some effort to do a lot of things, the nuclear issue, Iraq, Afghanistan, but I think that they're getting the sense that there's nobody home, in terms of willingness to really help out.

JIM LEHRER: What do you see?

DENNIS ROSS: See, I find it interesting, because that may be true. That could be the assessment of the administration. I would also say it in a slightly different way.

I think it's an illusion to think that the neighbors are going to be able to fix what's going on within Iraq. The problems in Iraq are internal to Iraq.

In the case of Iran and Syria, they're both capable of being spoilers. I don't think they're capable of being fixers. They're not the ones now -- the Iranians are not the ones right now who will determine what the Badr organization will do, what the Mahdi Army will do.

Do they have influence there? Yes. Can they determine what they do? I don't think so. The same with the Syrians. What's going on in Anbar Province, that's not a function of what the Syrians are doing.

JIM LEHRER: That's where the insurgents and the Marines are at it every day.

DENNIS ROSS: That's correct. So to think that somehow they can solve the problem there, I think that's an illusion. To bring all the neighbors together so that the neighbors at a minimum might exercise their influence to try to minimize some of what's going on, that, I think, is realistic and appropriate. I don't think we should have the illusion that somehow we can look to the outside to fix what's going on, on the inside.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of illusions or reality here, where again -- how important now is this baker-Hamilton report?

DAVID IGNATIUS: You know, I think it's very important, in terms of the country's mood here in the United States. We've just been through an election in which the public clearly said, "We are not happy with Iraq policy." So if the president hopes to go forward and have any political support, you know, for a patient, gradual effort to get us out...

JIM LEHRER: Graceful or not?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Graceful or ungraceful. I mean, I think they're prepared to accept messy, but he needs bipartisan support. I think the importance of Baker-Hamilton is it ought to provide a platform for doing that. You know...

JIM LEHRER: The details, you mean, are less important than just a launching pad?

DAVID IGNATIUS: That's my own feeling. I think the idea of having a regional conference that brings the neighbors together, you know, provides a platform for discussing these things makes a lot of sense. I think the administration's pessimism is overdone.

But, you know, as one of the proverbial senior administration officials said to me this week, "These are wolves," meaning Iran and Syria, "and we're talking about a wounded caribou" -- meaning us -- "and are they really going to help?" And I think they think no.

A bipartisan issue?

David Ignatius
The Washington Post
I think that Baker-Hamilton, and the administration, and some critics of the administration in the Democratic Party would all agree now that it's important over the next year to shift this mission...

JIM LEHRER: Have the leaks about the report, plus the Bush-Maliki meeting and other events -- there's also the Joint Chiefs of Staff are coming out with a record -- by the time we get this report next week, is it going to be as relevant as it might have been otherwise?

DENNIS ROSS: I think it can't meet the expectations. Now, this is not the fault of the people who are drafting it; it's the context.

First of all, in this town in particular, as you know, Republicans and Democrats alike were looking for a way to get out of Iraq, and they didn't trust the administration to be able to manage that. So they looked to the Iraq Study Group as their vehicle for doing this.

By definition, if you're going to produce a bipartisan outcome that is a consensus document, you're not going to have the kind of startling developments in it that will, in fact, have this impact, number one.

Number two, I would also say the nature of the problem within Iraq is such that, once again, you're not going to be able to suddenly release something and it's going to have the magic solution. There isn't a magic solution.

In the best of circumstances, if you can forge some kind of political compact there, and you can train Iraqi forces so Iraqi forces actually will decide they have something to fight for, other than just their own sect, then you can be on a path towards being able to manage a transition which, in my mind, will still take a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, it's a long time no matter what?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think it is a long time. I think there is an element of consensus here that's important. I think that Baker-Hamilton, and the administration, and some critics of the administration in the Democratic Party would all agree now that it's important over the next year to shift this mission from, you know, sort of main force U.S. units trying to pacify Baghdad and Iraq to a mission that's focused on training and advising the Iraqi army.

And I think that shift -- I think everybody's going to buy into that, and that is a significant change from what we've been doing.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen...

DENNIS ROSS: And I would just add, just one quick second. It is what everyone agrees on, but it isn't going to work if there isn't a political context in which it works within Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Got you. Thank you both very much.