President Bush said during a press conference on Tuesday that he expected U.S. troops to be in Iraq into and perhaps past the end of his second term in January 2009, and that the decision to pull all American forces out of the country would be left up to "future presidents and future governments in Iraq." It was the first time the White House had indicated that U.S. military involvement in Iraq would extend beyond Bush's term.
Bush also noted during the conference that much of the political capital he boasted of having after winning re-election in 2004 is being used up by the conflict. "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war," the president said. The New York Times characterized the statement as an admission by Bush that until he could convince an increasingly skeptical American public that the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq, the conflict would overshadow his presidency.
The nearly hour-long press conference — during which Bush ended a four-year freeze-out of legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas by allowing her to ask a question — also found the president brushing aside suggestions that his cabinet needs a shake-up and that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war.
"The Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war," Bush said, referring to violence that gripped the nation after the destruction of a Shiite mosque a month ago (see "Civil War Fears Persist In Iraq After Bombing Of Shiite Holy Site"). "The army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united. This is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn't. And that's a positive development.
On Sunday, former Iraqi interim prime minister and Bush ally Iyad Allawi said he thought Iraq had slipped into civil war.
As with recent appearances by Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush asserted that there are good things happening in Iraq beyond the daily bloodshed Americans see on television. The president took a similar message to Cleveland on Monday and will roll it out again in West Virginia on Wednesday (March 22) in an attempt to bolster his sagging approval numbers and combat polls showing that a majority of Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake.
"I'm going to say it again: If I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there," Bush said on Tuesday. "I wouldn't put those kids there."
According to The Los Angeles Times, several recent polls have found that almost 30 percent of those surveyed think the U.S. should immediately begin removing troops from Iraq, twice the percentage that favored a withdrawal two years ago.
In sometimes testy exchanges with reporters, the president returned to a familiar White House talking point: the notion that the security of America is explicitly tied into completion of the mission in Iraq. "I fully understand the consequences of this war," Bush said. "I understand people's lives are being lost. But 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."
No exchange was more pointed than that with Hearst Newspapers columnist Thomas, who has put tough questions to every president since John F. Kennedy.
"Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime," Thomas said. "Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil — quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?"
"I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist — that I didn't want war," the president responded. "To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect."
After Thomas and Bush interrupted each other, he continued, invoking the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 as a partial explanation for the war in Iraq.
"No president wants war," Bush said. "Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We — when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people."
In addition to reiterating his optimism that the U.S. will succeed in Iraq, Bush, facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency (see "With Poll Numbers At An All-Time Low, Bush Offers Iraq Transition Timetable"), also defended Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld against calls by some members of Congress for him to step down and brushed off suggestions that the White House is in need of a staffing shake-up.
When asked about a recent move to have him censured by Congress over his secret domestic spying program, Bush pointedly lashed out at democrats. "I did notice that nobody from the Democratic Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program," he said. "They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used."