WASHINGTON – Noting that Iraqis had a chance to devolve into civil war after recent attacks on Muslim holy sites and car bombings in the streets, President Bush said Tuesday that the country has demonstrated it does not want chaos.
"We all recognize there is violence, that there is sectarian violence, but the way I look at it is the Iraqis decided not to go to civil war," Bush said in response to a reporter's question in the White House briefing room.
"I believe we're going to succeed and I understand how tough it is, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. ... But this is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart and they didn't."
The president did not say specifically what the U.S. role would be if civil war broke out, instead arguing that security forces and the Iraqi government are doing everything possible to prevent that from happening.
"Obviously, if there is difficulty on the streets, the first line of defense for that difficulty will be the Iraqi forces, which have proved themselves in the face of potential sectarian violence, right after the bombing of the mosque in Samarra," he said.
Bush did not say when U.S. troops would be completely out of Iraq, refusing to set a timetable. He said decisions on force levels will be based on recommendations of commanders on the ground.
"The decisions about our troop levels will be made by General Casey and the commanders on the ground. They're the ones who can best judge whether or not the presence of coalition troops create more of a problem than a solution — than be a part of the solution," he said. A complete withdrawal "is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," he added.
Beginning with an opening statement on the war in Iraq and events in Iran, the Q&A was part of a strategy in which the president took his case for continuing to support the war effort directly to the American people.
It follows a speech Monday in Cleveland in which the president described one city, Tal Afar, in Iraq that has had positive results since the Iraqi security forces and police took control of the town. In particular, Bush pointed to success in stabilizing an insurgent stronghold in Tal Afar, a northern Iraqi city of 200,000 near the Syrian border.
On Tuesday, Bush said cases like Tal Afar gave him "confidence in the future of Iraq."
As for Iran, Bush said he will continue for now to take a diplomatic approach toward that country, allowing the EU-3 — France, the United Kingdom and Germany — as well as Russia and China to meet with Iranian leaders on ending its nuclear pursuits.
France, Britain, China, Russia and the United States are all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Bush said the P-5, as they are called, is trying to maintain a unified and cohesive message that Iran will not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon.
"And the reason why is because if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world; if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate," Bush said, adding that Iran is trying to find weaknesses among the international group.
"If you're a nontransparent society, you've got a negotiating advantage over six parties, because all you have to do is, kind of, try to find, you know, a — the weakest link in the negotiating team. And so, our job is to make sure that this kind of international will remains strong and united, so that we can solve this issue diplomatically," he said.
Bush said that the United States does plan to engage unilaterally with Iran on the issue of Iraq. Components in several improvised explosive devices, the roadside bombs blamed for many of the deaths of U.S. forces, have been traced back to Iran. Bush said the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, will meet with Iranian officials to discuss Iran's role in destabilizing Iraq.
"A couple of months ago, I gave Zal, our ambassador in Iraq, permission to explain to the Iranians what we didn't like about their involvement in Iraq. I thought it was important for them to hear firsthand, other than through press accounts," Bush said.
"Iraq is a sovereign government. They have a foreign policy. And when they get their unity government stepped up, they will be in charge of negotiating with the Iranians their foreign policy arrangement. So this is a way for us to make it clear to them that — about what's right or wrong in their activities inside of Iraq," he added.
Talking to FOX News, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., accused Iran of sending weapons and materials to make IEDs across the border to Iraq. He said Iran must be stopped from building a nuclear weapon because it could pass that technology to terrorist groups.
"A clear warning needs to be sent to Iran on various fronts," Allen said. Iran "cannot get a nuclear weapon."
Confidence in His Team
In the press conference, his first since January, the president also touched on the economy. The Labor Department announced a big drop in inflation on Tuesday, and Bush said he would continue to work with Congress to cut the deficit in half, make tax cuts permanent and ensure investment is promoted in basic research, science and education.
"Last year, our economy grew at a healthy 3.5 percent. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the economy has added nearly 5 million new jobs. That's more than Japan and the 25 nations of the European Union combined," Bush said.
Bush said the unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, productivity is strong and household net worth is at an all-time high.
"The growing economy is part of the hard work of the American people and good policies here in Washington," he said.
In response to charges that his aides have dropped the ball on issues that have turned into public relations nightmares, such as the Dubai Ports World deal or the government response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush said he was not making any staff changes at this time.
"I've got a staff of people that have, first of all, placed their country above their self-interests. These are good, hard-working, decent people. And we've dealt with a lot. We've dealt with a lot. We've dealt with war. We've dealt with recession. We've dealt with scandal. We've dealt with Katrina," Bush said as his press secretary Scott McClellan, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and other aides sat nearby.
"I mean, they've had a lot on their plate. And I appreciate their performance and their hard work and they've got my confidence."
Bush said he gets a lot of advice "sometimes in private from my friends, and sometimes in public," and that he too experiences frustrations, such as when he saw 11,000 trailers sitting idle outside New Orleans where Katrina struck last September, leaving many homeless.
"Obviously there are some times when government bureaucracy hasn't responded the way that we want them to. ... I share that sense of frustration when government is unable to [respond well], it sends the wrong signals to taxpayers."
The president said he also has no plans to dismiss Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been accused of botching the war in Iraq by misreading Iraqis' perceptions that they would see American forces as liberators and not accounting for unforeseen contingencies or developing an exit strategy.
"No, I don't believe he should resign. I think he's done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon," Bush said.
But in San Jose, Calif., Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California told 350 business leaders that Rumsfeld should be removed.
"I say it's time to change course, to bring in another team. We should not be putting American soldiers in the middle of a civil war with targets on their backs," Feinstein said. "Secretary Rumsfeld is a very strong leader, and I don't believe he listens to many people, and that's a problem. It's time for him to go."
With November mid-term elections rapidly approaching, the president acknowledged that much of the hand-wringing about his staff and advisers usually comes during an election year. He said that while he is listening to advice and welcomes suggestions, the GOP has a lot to boast about to voters before they go to the polls.
"Over the last 12 months, we've got two Supreme Court judges confirmed, we've got the Patriot Act reauthorized over the objections of the Democratic leadership in the Senate. We've got some tort reform passed. We've passed a budget that cut nonsecurity discretionary spending. I mean, there's a series of — we've got an energy bill passed," he said, adding that his competitiveness initiative to strengthen America's students and businesses in science and math, and an aggressive health care agenda that has yet to be announced set additional goals to be achieved.
"We shouldn't fear this future. In other words, we shouldn't allow isolationism and protectionism to overwhelm us. We ought to be confident about our ability to shape the future," he said.
Bush said that he was disappointed that Congress did not address Social Security, but future Congresses will as the crisis gets worse. He added that partisanship is difficult to overcome, particularly when select members of the Democratic Party are calling for possible censure or impeachment of the president over the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program.
"I did notice that nobody from the Democratic Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say, 'The tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used.' They ought to take their message to the people and say, 'Vote for me. I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program,'" Bush said.
Keeping Up Appearances
During his speech Monday, the second of three on Iraq, Bush acknowledged dwindling support for his Iraq policy and responded to what he described as the rhetorical question Americans must have about why he is so optimistic about success.
In answering questions from the audience, Bush said the war is going better than it looks from the images on television, adding that the sacrifices the country is making in blood and money are worth it.
"My main job is to make sure I make the case as plainly as I can why it's worth it. And I fully understand — I understand people being disheartened when they turn on their TV screen and see the loss of innocent life. We're compassionate people. Nobody likes beheadings and it — nobody — when innocent children get car-bombed."
The news conference and speeches are part of a new PR campaign, one of half a dozen the president has conducted around significant events in Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein history. He held an event in December as Iraqis went to the polls to elect leaders who are right now trying to form a government of national reconciliation.
A recent AP-Ipsos poll indicates that the American public is skeptical about the conduct of the war and nearly four out of five Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, are worried Iraq could slip into civil war. During Tuesday's conference with reporters, Bush was asked how he can convince Joe and Jane American that it's worth it to continue the war in Iraq, three years after its start and with no exit date in sight.
Bush said he is going around the country to explain why he thinks the war can be won and that he is looking realistically at the consequences of war, including the more than 2,300 American soldiers who have been killed in that country.
Bush said he understands the "enemy's capability to effect debate. They are capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show, and therefore, it affects" what Americans think. "And I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. I think most Americans understand we need to win. But they're concerned about whether or not we can win."
But, he added, this administration does have a plan for victory.
"If not, I'd pull our troops out. I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way," he said.
"But I also understand the consequences of not achieving our objectives by leaving too early," Bush said, adding that the terrorists want to drive coalition troops out of Iraq "so they can plan, plot and attack America again. That's what they have said, that's their objective. It is very important to have a president who is realistic and listening to what the enemy says."