WASHINGTON – The White House is going out of its way not to dispute a grim assessment on Iraq from President Bush's first-term secretary of state.
Press Secretary Tony Snow called Colin Powell's comments "thoughtful" and "practical."
Interviewed on CBS over the weekend, Powell said America is "losing" in Iraq. And he cast doubt on proposals to send more U.S. troops to Baghdad, saying he's "not persuaded" that the plan "will work."
Powell also called the U.S. Army overextended and "about broken."
Snow said Powell's comments were "pretty consistent" with what the Bush administration's saying, and they're what you'd expect from a former top diplomat and chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
"We respect Colin Powell, and it's important that he play a part in the debate," Snow said. "But at this point, the president will continue to look at all the information at his disposal, and all of the analysis, and make his own determination about the best way forward."
Snow characterized Powell's comments as practical and thoughtful, but added that "all of these considerations and concerns have been raised before." Snow wouldn't say if the White House agrees with Powell that America's losing the fight.
"I'm not playing the game any more," he said.
Despite Powell's comments, the incoming Senate majority leader offered qualified support for a troop surge, saying it would be acceptable for a few months as part of a broader strategy to bring combat forces home by 2008.
"If the commanders on the ground said this is just for a short period of time, we'll go along with that," said Sen. Harry Reid, citing a time frame such as two months to three months. But a period of 18 months to 24 months would be too long, he said.
Other Democrats, though, voice opposition to a troop increase in Iraq.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and possible Democratic presidential contender, said Monday she was not in favor of a proposed "surge" of some 20,000-40,000 American troops into Baghdad to quell the sectarian violence there.
"I am not in favor of doing that unless it's part of a larger plan," Clinton, said in an interview on NBC television's "Today" show. "I am not in favor of sending more troops to continue what our men and women have been told to do with the government of Iraq pulling the rug out from under them when they actually go after some the bad guys."
Bush is reviewing options for a change of course in Iraq and plans to address the nation in early January.
On Sunday, Iraq's Sunni vice president called for more American soldiers in Baghdad to quell sectarian violence — even though the Shiite-dominated government has proposed shifting U.S. troops to the capital's periphery and having Iraqis assume primary responsibility for security in the city.
"Who is going to replace the American troops?" asked Tariq al-Hashemi, who met with Bush in Washington last week. "Iraqi troops, across the board, they are insufficient, incompetent, and many of them corrupted."
There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and about 5,000 advisers. Combat troops make up less than half of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman for the first President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 Gulf War, said if more troops were proposed, commanders would have to make their mission clear, determine whether they can accomplish it and what size force is appropriate.
"I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work," said Powell, who was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. "We have to be very, very careful in this instance not just to grab a number out of the air."
Increasing troops would run counter to recent recommendations by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which set a goal of withdrawing combat troops by early 2008 in support of more aggressive regional diplomacy.
Powell said that U.S. troops should not act as policemen. He described the U.S. Army as "about broken," with a shortage of equipment, officers going on repetitive tours and gaps in military coverage elsewhere in the world.
"The current active Army is not large enough and the Marine Corps is not large enough for the kinds of missions they're being asked to perform," he said. "And the Congress has a serious task ahead of it, to make sure that the Army and the Marine Corps get the funds they need to sustain themselves and to sustain their equipment and their ammunition."