President Bush Calls Iraq Study Group Proposals ‘Very Interesting’
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RAY SUAREZ: Dan Bartlett, welcome back to the program.
DAN BARTLETT, Counselor to President Bush: Thank you for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: Has the president read the report of the Iraq Study Group?
DAN BARTLETT: I can’t say that he’s read it completely. We’ve given him a pretty full day today, but he did have a very constructive conversation with the members of the commission.
And then, later in the day, he had a very interesting conversation with both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House, who provided their insights and commentary, not only on the report, but more broadly, as people with the experience you would expect on the foreign intelligence committee, Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence Committees would have.
So it’s been a constructive dialogue today. The administration is looking at all of these recommendations very carefully.
As we stated, we’re not going to have an instant analysis of every piece of information coming out just yet. There is a robust review under way by the administration, by the military leadership, by the national security staff.
So there’s a lot of activity under way, but the president was deeply grateful for the service to the country that these people provided by producing this report.
The president's reaction
RAY SUAREZ: Does the president have a general reaction, either to the study group's general assessment of the state of play in Iraq or the recommendations on the way forward?
DAN BARTLETT: Well, I think you saw in his own comments today that he does believe that we face a very difficult situation, particularly when you look at the 30-mile radius around Baghdad and the sectarian violence that has unfolded there. That is something that's very important for us to study carefully.
He understands that they had a very bleak assessment and a very tough assessment of what's going on, and he recognizes that.
At the same time, he believes that the areas in which they are addressing are areas that we recognize are places where we need to have some change in strategy, whether it talks about how we deal with the Iraqi government, give them more capability. The diplomacy in the region is something that he's very acutely aware of, when it comes to having a sense of urgency.
But, specifically, I think it's important that we give these recommendations the type of treatment they deserve, and that is a close scrutiny.
Discussions with Iran, Syria?
RAY SUAREZ: Part of what the study group has proposed is what it calls a "new diplomatic offensive," which features talking to Iran and Syria, two countries with which the United States has had recent difficult relations, and unhooking, uncoupling Iran's nuclear problems and sending them to the United Nations so they can enter regional talks on saving Iraq.
DAN BARTLETT: You're right. And the issue about Iran is a very complex one, and there's a reason why our country has not had diplomatic relations with them for over 25 years.
And the question is never whether we should talk to our adversaries or not. The question is: When do you do it? When does it help advance United States interests? And when can it potentially hurt them?
And that's a very complex issue and one that has to be constantly analyzed. As you probably know, the situation with Syria example, we've had communications with Syria. We've given them very specific issues in which we could work with them on, in commonality. And, unfortunately, they have said one thing and done quite the other.
So the question really is, as we advance this progress -- this report, is to determine whether the timing is right for those type of conversations, how exactly they would advance it, and most importantly -- and it's something that the president takes very seriously -- is that the fact that the prime minister of Iraq, the sovereign government of Iraq, also has a stake in the diplomacy of their country.
And Prime Minister Maliki in a press conference just yesterday talked about launching a regional conference in which -- led by Iraqis -- to talk to its neighbors. So we ought to take all of that into context. He's going to look at these recommendations. Secretary Baker made a very articulate case for why this new diplomatic initiative is necessary, and it's something that we'll look at.
RAY SUAREZ: Would the president be prepared to talk to the Iranians without the Iranian regime stopping enriching nuclear materials?
DAN BARTLETT: Well, my understanding is that, at one point in the past, we had said that the ambassador to Iraq, Zal Khalilzad, had the authority to talk to Iran about issues with regards to inside Iraq.
The president has made very clear that the demands we have on them when it comes to enriching remain. But, again, he's going to look at this report in totality. We're going to see exactly the rationale behind the positions.
He's heard specifically from the commission members, but our position on those things are grounded in a broader diplomatic strategy that is playing itself out in the United Nations Security Council, as we're debating U.N. resolutions to bring sanctions upon Iran.
So it's a very delicate time in which negotiations and diplomacy with regards to Iran are under way. As you know, the president tomorrow will be meeting with Prime Minister Blair of the United Kingdom, in which they will also strategize about, not only issues inside Iraq, but those in the region, as well.
Role of Palestine-Israel crisis
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today, James Baker said that virtually no one the study group spoke to during all the months said that this could be solved, this Iraq problem could be solved, without also addressing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Does the president see it that way, that it's a necessary precondition to fixing the other?
DAN BARTLETT: Well, the president is keenly aware of the relationships between the forces of moderation and the forces of extremism in the Middle East. That is no more acutely felt than in the Palestinian issue.
The president is a strong supporter of a state solution for Palestine, that the two states living side by side in peace is in the benefit, the long-term security interest of Israel.
The question is making sure that we have the conditions right to do that. The president knows very well that this is an issue, a touchstone issue for Muslims all around the world, whether it be in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East.
And it's something he is deeply committed to. And we are constantly strategizing about the best way forward to advance a Middle East peace process. And, again, that's something he looks forward to talking to Prime Minister Blair about tomorrow.
Shifting the role of troops in Iraq
RAY SUAREZ: One key recommendation of the study group is no open-ended commitment in Iraq. Lee Hamilton said earlier that that, in effect, gives the Iraqi government command over U.S. forces in its country. Is there a willingness to revisit what the president stated earlier this week, that we can't leave until the job is done and the Iraqis want us to go?
DAN BARTLETT: Well, I think the interesting part about that comment is that it's the prime minister himself of Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki, who wants the relationship to change.
He wants to have full control over Iraqi security forces to where U.S. combat forces are not necessary. It is in their interest that we move quickly. In fact, he had a very ambitious schedule in which he believes that they can take control of all Iraqi security forces by roughly the end of the first quarter of next year.
That is a very ambitious proposal and demonstrates that the Iraqi government is not sitting back and wanting the Americans to do all the work endlessly for an open-ended commitment.
But, again, we're going to take all these recommendations into account. We're going to review them very carefully. And then, as the president hears from his military advisers, as well, he'll talk to the country about the way forward.
RAY SUAREZ: White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, thanks for being with us.
DAN BARTLETT: Thank you.