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White House Chief of Staff Discusses Iraq War, Vacancies

September 5, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, a newsmaker interview with White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. I spoke with him this afternoon.

Mr. Bolten, welcome.

JOSHUA BOLTEN, White House Chief of Staff: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush is expecting an upbeat report from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, is that correct?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: He’s expecting a candid report from both of them, and I’m sure it’s going to be a mixed picture, showing both progress and optimism on many key issues, especially on the security front, and disappointment and concern on other fronts, but with a suggestion of the way forward of the best way to deal with a very complicated situation in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the president was briefed on this Sunday in Iraq, right, on his trip?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: He was. And he’d also spoken previously by video conference with both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. So he’s been given already a good idea of what the two of them are likely to be testifying to on Monday and Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: So there’s no big bracing going on among you and your colleagues at the White House, correct?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: No. There’s — the president has a good sense of what they’re going to say. What I should emphasize, though, is that the White House has not been involved in steering what they’re going to say.

The president in those conversations was in receive mode, because he wants their report to be what it is, which is the report of a professional diplomat and a professional soldier with their best judgment about the conditions on the ground in Iraq and their recommendations of the best way forward.

JIM LEHRER: Now, much has been made about the fact that the president went to Anbar province to be briefed, rather than the normal place, Baghdad, and that Anbar is being shown as the example of things that can work on the ground. Is that a correct reading of what the message was?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: That is. It was a very good reason to go to Anbar, as a — to showcase some of the success that has occurred there in bottom-up reconciliation in Iraq. The president wanted to see that with his own eyes. He wanted to meet the troops who have been such an important contributor to the success there.

He also wanted to meet the Iraqi federal officials there to encourage them along the paths that folks in Anbar have already followed and meet the Iraqi provincial leaders, some of the local sheiks, who met with him there. I wasn’t at the meeting, but I know that the president and his advisers were very impressed with what they heard from the local leaders about their commitment to ensuring that they establish a responsible, safe government for their people, free of the influence of extremists, especially al-Qaida.

And I think it was good for all across the Iraqi governmental spectrum for those leaders to be there and for the provincial leaders to be there at the same time.

JIM LEHRER: But at the same time, most unimpressed with what the national leaders and the national government has done up until now, correct?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: There have been disappointments, but there have been areas of progress, as well. And one of the most optimistic signs occurred just last week, which I think has been a late-breaking development in all of this. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be able to speak to it in detail next week.

But last week, for the first time, the five leaders of the Iraqi government, which includes the prime minister, who is a Shia, but also the president, some of the deputy prime ministers who are Kurds and Sunnis, all five of them came together and signed a pact on a way forward to pursue some of the key elements of reconciliation that so far have not appeared and have been something of a disappointment to many people here in the United States.

So disappointment is the right word for a lot of the areas that we had been hoping to see more progress from the Iraqi federal government, but some strong signs of progress.

Iraq war benchmarks

Joshua Bolten
White House Chief of Staff
The GAO report basically ended its reporting period at the end of July and, therefore, does not have the benefit of many of the positive developments, including the Iraqi leadership coming together, that occurred just last week.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Government Accountability Office had a report out yesterday and a hearing to go with it -- Senate hearing to going with it -- in which there were 18 guidelines or 18 benchmarks, and the report said 11 of those have yet to be met. Do you agree? Do you have any quarrel with that?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Well, I would say wait and see what the report is from the people on the ground there. There are many reports coming out. The GAO is just one of them. I haven't read their report, but I understand that what it was measuring is, these are the benchmarks that were set several months ago. Have they been met?

And the answer is, in most cases, of course not. But there's been substantial progress in many cases, modest progress in others. So if you're judging it solely on the toggle switch of yes or no, has the benchmark been met, not surprising that they would find few have been met.

Let me mention one other thing...


JOSHUA BOLTEN: ... that relates to the previous question you asked me, and that is that I also understand that the GAO report basically ended its reporting period at the end of July and, therefore, does not have the benefit of many of the positive developments, including the Iraqi leadership coming together that occurred just last week, or many of the positive developments on the security side that General Petraeus will be able to speak to next week.

JIM LEHRER: There's a report that's due out officially tomorrow that -- the news of it just came out, an independent report chaired by former Marine Commandant James Jones about the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. Let me read you a quote from that: "The police force is not viable in its current form. The national police should be disbanded and reorganized," end quote.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: I haven't seen that report, either. Like I said, it's one of many. I think all of that will be taken into account by General Petraeus, by Ambassador Crocker, and by the president as he announces the way forward.

General Jones has a lot of credibility with everybody involved here, so I know his report will be taken seriously. I expect that his report, in addition to being critical of the Iraqi police, will also note some substantial improvements in the Iraqi army, which has been performing increasingly well in a very complicated situation.

JIM LEHRER: That quote only applies to the police. The army -- the same report that has been leaked today, this afternoon, does say that progress has been made by the army. But it says, generally speaking, that it would be a year to 18 months at the earliest that the combination of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police could operate independently and maintain security in Iraq.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: All of those data points will be taken into account by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker when they give their report to the Congress. The president's going to take all those views into account when he outlines the way forward, after they've had a chance to testify.

Leadership in Iraq

Joshua Bolten
White House Chief of Staff
Both [General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker] have well-deserved reputations for integrity and independence. The president's going to rely on their independent advice.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bolten, how did we get into a situation where one general named Petraeus has suddenly become the master whatever, the master decider as to what is happening on the ground in Iraq?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Well, he's not the decider.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Bad choice of words.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: He's the commander on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: I withdraw the word.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Withdrawal permitted.

JIM LEHRER: OK, magic judger, all right? I mean, the man who said, "OK, it's working or it's not working." If Petraeus says it, everybody has to believe it. If everybody else, if everybody -- I'll stop right there. How did we get to that place?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: It is an unusual circumstance. But I think it is a product of so many different voices being focused on and so many different sets of eyes being focused on a very complicated problem and the president's very strong commitment that he wants to be guided by the person who is actually responsible for the deployment and supervision of our troops there.

And that applies, also, to Ambassador Crocker on the diplomatic side. Both of them have well-deserved reputations for integrity and independence. The president's going to rely on their independent advice.

And I think we've gotten to that point, because the debate has become so politicized, and that we need to put extra burden in this case, at this time in our history, on those who are genuinely apart from politics. I think that's the way the president will review their report. I think that's how the American people should view their report.

JIM LEHRER: And the president -- you would expect the president to say to the Democrats in Congress, to Republicans in Congress, to Republicans, Americans everywhere, "If you have a doubt, go with Petraeus rather than anybody else"?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: I'd expect him to say that. I think he should say that, because those are the people who are there 14, 16, 18 hours a day fighting the battle, understanding the situation on the ground in a very complicated situation better than anybody else, and have the strongest interest in success.

Now, having said all that, the president remains the commander-in-chief. He needs to put the overall national interest into perspective. He needs to make a judgment about the way forward. He will do that after General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have had a chance to deliver their report.

White House staff turnover

Joshua Bolten
White House Chief of Staff
I think what's actually remarkable about this administration is not the turnover but the continuity, that we've had many senior people serve for so long in the administration.

JIM LEHRER: New subject. There have been several published reports that it was you who finally convinced President Bush that Alberto Gonzales should go as attorney general. Is that true?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Attorney General Gonzales came to his own conclusion, and I think it was a courageous decision on his part that the president reluctantly accepted. I think Alberto came to the realization that, as unfair as the attacks on him over the last several months have been, that at some point you need to let that unfairness, in a sense, stand and step aside for the good of the department, which I know he loves and wants to succeed, more than concern about what might happen to him personally.

JIM LEHRER: Same or similar circumstances lead to the resignation of Karl Rove?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: No. This was completely an independent decision by Karl about the time that he wanted to leave. He had been talking with the president about leaving for at least a year, maybe more. And I'd known for many months that Karl was looking to leave in the interests of his own family and his own -- -- his own cycle in his life.

And that's a circumstance in which the timing was not dictated by any sort of outside forces. That was completely up to Karl. All of us at the White House would have loved to have had him stay and continue to contribute in the way he does, because he's a brilliant character, but everybody also accepted that this was the time in his life to move on.

JIM LEHRER: By looking through news reports and putting it all together today in preparation for talking to you, the best I could tell of the original very close inner circle of President Bush, they're all gone, except for Condoleezza Rice, and she's, of course, now the secretary of state. Do you expect her to last until the very end or have you heard anything about her leaving along with everybody else?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: I expect her to go straight through, and I think that's a good thing for the country and everybody else. Look, a lot is made about the turnover and so on.

I think what's actually remarkable about this administration is not the turnover but the continuity, that we've had many senior people serve for so long in the administration. Karl Rove, for example, people shouldn't be surprised that he might go at this point. He's been working for the president for 14 years, intensively at the White House for the last six-and-a-half. So we've had a lot of continuity.

The other thing that strikes me from my seat now as chief of staff is that, as important as you think any individual is -- and Karl Rove is a good example, Dan Bartlett is another example...

JIM LEHRER: Who was the counselor to the president.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Counselor to the president.

JIM LEHRER: And before that, before he was president...

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Yes, it goes all the way back to the early '90s with the president. As brilliant as both of those people are, and made spectacular and important contributions to the White House, there's something about the organic structure of at least this White House -- and I think most White Houses -- that when you lose an important player like that, other people come in, other people step up, and you tend not to lose a step.

And that's been the history in this administration. We've had some really remarkable people come into government in the later years of this administration, like Hank Paulson, Bob Gates, Ed Gillespie, who replaced Dan Bartlett. The list goes on of very strong people continuing to be interested in public service. And it doesn't cause me concern about the ability of the White House to function, even though we lose some of our best players.

President Bush's inner circle

Joshua Bolten
White House Chief of Staff
I view it as an important part of my job and an important part of everybody serving the president to give him the story straight as we see it. And he accepts that. He accepts that very well.

JIM LEHRER: All those names you just mentioned are people you personally recruited, too, are they not?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Some of them.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Much has been made that the people who could give President Bush bad news, who knew him well enough over many years to look at him straight in the eye and say, "Hey, this isn't working" or whatever, with candor, those people are now gone. Is that true? Can you give the president bad news?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Sure. I do every day. And I view it as an important part of my job and an important part of everybody serving the president to give him the story straight as we see it. And he accepts that. He accepts that very well.

In fact, on some of the rare occasions in which I've seen him angry are situations in which people have failed to give him their honest counsel or failed to give him the bad news out of fear that it's just unpopular to deliver bad news sometimes. So I don't see that as a problem at this White House, certainly not with this president.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, a bad news question having to do with Senator Craig. Are you concerned at all about the reports today that he's reconsidering his resignation very seriously? Senate Minority Leader McConnell just talked about it today.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: The president called Senator Craig right after he made his announcement of his intent to resign a few days ago and called to wish him well, to compliment him on a career of distinguished public service, and to tell him that he knew that his decision to resign had been very difficult, but that he was confident that he had arrived at the right decision for himself and for Idaho, for the people of Idaho. And I think Senator Craig is going to conclude that that remains the right decision.

JIM LEHRER: That would be your hope?

JOSHUA BOLTEN: I think Senator Craig is going to conclude that, and I think that's the right place for it to be.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bolten, thank you very much.

JOSHUA BOLTEN: Thank you for having me.