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Bush Walks a Fine Line on Iraq, and Winning

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And with me now are regular political observers E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. He's here in the studio. Welcome, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Brookings Institution): Thank you. Happy holidays.

NORRIS: Happy holidays to you. And Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review joins us on the line. Hello, Rich.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (The National Review): Hi. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: I'd like to start with the president's evolving statements about the war. Today he said I believe that we're going to win but we're, quote, “not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted.”

Yesterday he told the editorial board of The Washington Post that the U.S. is neither winning nor losing. The president is obviously trying to walk a fine line here, is he not, E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well I think over this period from before the election to now, he's blown some holes through his own credibility. We recall that he said Rumsfeld, Donald Rumsfeld, is going to be secretary of defense right through the end and then the day after the election he flipped around and it turned out that he was actually trying to get him out of there in that very period when he said that. Now he said we're going to win before the election and he says we're not winning now. So I think that's a problem for him.

I think the moment that I thought was most striking today is when he was asked what will you do with a surge of troops if the Pentagon, if the joint chiefs or parts of the joint chiefs oppose it, and he said that's a dangerous hypothetical question. Well, it's very dangerous to him because it's one thing for Democrats in Congress to say this is a bad idea, but if a lot of people at the top of our military think it's a bad idea, it becomes very difficult.

And there was another moment where the president was asked, you know, how big a role will the commanders have in making these decisions. In the past, the president said I always listen to the commanders on troop levels. This time he said they'll play a very important role.

I mean, it suggests a lot of pulling and hauling and disagreement inside the administration and between parts of the Pentagon and the administration about the way forward.

NORRIS: The NSA as well.

Mr. DIONNE: Yes. And so I think this suggests the difficult that he's in.

NORRIS: Rich, we'll come back to the question of surge or no surge in just a minute, but first, most striking statement you heard in the press conference today?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, I think it's what E.J. started talking about, the rhetoric about whether we're winning or not and President Bush having to try to explain what he meant by absolutely we're winning just a couple of months ago, when he's no longer saying that. And it's clear his statement then, absolutely we're winning, was aspirational in nature and President Bush has believed all along very strongly that it's his role to project strength and optimism about the war.

The problem was there's a tipping point somewhere along the line there where that may have made sense but it began to be so at odds with conditions in Iraq that he began to erode his own credibility. I think we've seen a steady process of President Bush sobering up his rhetoric, which I think is a good thing.

NORRIS: But yet you still hear him say things as he did today, this is the calling for our times. You still hear that kind of language.

Mr. LOWRY: Sure. I think that's a different question. Look, I think when he says that sort of thing he's talking about the broader ideological struggle against terrorism and Islamic radicalism and I think it's completely legitimate to suggest that the struggle in Iraq is part of that war, and it's also completely legitimate for President Bush still to project optimism over the long term that we're going to win. Because as he put it, kind of his own folksy way, if he doesn't think we're going to win, you know, why are we there when he should be pulling the troops out?

NORRIS: E.J., I'd like to talk to you about the timing and the importance of that upcoming speech in January. The president has gone to great lengths to explain that he's getting counsel from lots of places, he's listening to a lot of people. He seems to be sort of playing up the anticipation about this.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, this is also a very odd moment that this is an administration that's been so self-confident, to the point of arrogance, and suddenly you see the president pull back and say we're not ready yet. We want to go through all of this. At one level, one says well, that's really good. It's good that they're not just jumping out there with a half baked policy.

You might ask, you wish they had thought a little bit more about this before we started the war. On the other hand, this is a very tricky thing for him because by the time he gives his speech, it'll be before the state of the union, after the Democrats take control of Congress, and we're going to have a couple weeks of second guessing and third guessing the president.

So he is really building up a very large burden for himself that he's going to have to meet in this speech, because I think whatever you make of the last election, it's clearly a demand for something very different in Iraq, and so he's going to have to deliver something pretty big, having postponed the speech from now until next year.

NORRIS: Rich, when we were talking about the question of whether or not to sort of buy into this surge in strength in Iraq, you noted that the president was careful to avoid a question about whether or not he would overrule his generals. It seems to be an example of something you've written about, something called the - something you penned the Vietnam syndrome.

Mr. LOWRY: Yeah, it's kind of a conservative Vietnam syndrome. Well, the lesson, I think the false lesson, that some conservatives took away from Vietnam was that that war was too much managed by the civilians and gosh, if just General Westmoreland had been left even more alone, we would've won in Vietnam.

When the truth is General Westmoreland had no idea how to defeat the insurgency on the ground in Vietnam, and in some respect, Abizaid and Casey have been replicating his mistakes, and Bush has been replicating LBJ's mistakes by letting them just pursue their strategy and totally subcontracting out his role of commander in chief to them with a strategy that has now been proven as a failure.

And I think if Bush is really going to run this war and make this decision to go with the surge, he's going to have to confront that core belief that he has repeated over and over and over again that basically, I do whatever the generals want on troops levels, and I think that was always a mistake for him to have that kind of attitude, but it's going to take a big attitude adjustment for him to turn around and say you know what? The generals aren't always right.

NORRIS: E.J., very quickly, if he does follow that course, how tough a sales job does he face?

Mr. DIONNE: I think he faces a very tough sales job because for the last three years, we've heard over and over again well, if we do this new thing, everything's going to be right in three to six months. If he does the surge, things better be better in three to six months, or he's going to have a very large problem.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you, and happy holidays.

Mr. DIONNE: And you, too.

Mr. LOWRY: Thanks so much. Same to you.

NORRIS: That was Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.