WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday that the U.S. needs to expand the size of the Army and Marines to meet the challenges of the War on Terror, and has asked new Defense Secretary Robert Gates to begin the process.
"I'm inclined to believe that we need to increase in — the permanent size of both the United States Army and the United States Marines. I've asked Secretary Gates to determine how such an increase could take place and report back to me as quickly as possible," Bush said in an opening statement during his year-end news conference with White House reporters.
But the president would not respond to questions about whether he plans to up the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, where approximately 140,000 U.S. troops are deployed. The administration has said previously that he plans to announce an updated strategy for Iraq in January.
"I haven't made up my mind yet about more troops," Bush said. "I will tell you we're looking at all options. And one of those options, of course, is increasing more troops. But, in order to do so, there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon released a report that showed a 22 percent increase in violence in Iraq in the last three months and a 60 percent increase in civilians killed. The report also pointed to sectarian violence as the greatest threat to Iraq security.
Meanwhile, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East is retiring. Army Gen. John Abizaid will step down from his post in March. His four-year term, which already set back his original retirement date, ends in July 2007.
But Bush would not say that he believes the United States is failing in Iraq, which was a shade different from a remark he made a day earlier to The Washington Post in which he said the U.S. is not winning in Iraq.
"The first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win. I believe that -- and, by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you've got to know. We're going to succeed,' Bush said. "My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted, when I said it at the time, and that the conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad."
But, he added: "I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task but they can't run us out of the Middle East ... that's not going to happen."
Bush, speaking to reporters in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Building, said he would "gather all" recommendations from Gates, military leaders on the ground, diplomats and interested Iraqis for a way forward in Iraq.
"Then I will report back to you as to whether or not I support a surge or not," Bush said. "Secretary Gates is going to be an important voice in the strategy review that's under way."
Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a surprise trip to Iraq — just two days after Gates started his new job at the Pentagon. The two are meeting with military commanders around Iraq.
Bush's press conference comes two weeks after a panel of commissioned members released the Iraq Study Group report, which outlined recommendations for a change of course in Iraq.
The report offered 79 recommendations, including three critical suggestions — changing the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq, prompt action by the Iraqi government to hit milestones on reconciliation and new and enhanced political and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and the region.
The congressionally-commissioned panel also suggested that the United States consider talking with Syria and Iran. A few U.S. senators took their own expedition to Syria last week, meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad to the dismay of the White House, which did not sanction the trip.
Bush said he would talk to Iran only after the regime there verifiably suspends its nuclear enrichment programs. The U.N. Security Council is now considering a resolution that would sanction Iran for its nuclear pursuits in defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"If they want to sit down with us for the good of the Iranian people, they ought to verifiably suspend their program," Bush said.
The president added that Iran demonstrated last week that it is not a partner for peace after it held a Holocaust denial conference, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"All that said to me is that the leader in Iran is willing to say things that really hurts his country and further isolates the Iranian people," Bush said. "My message to the Iranian people is you can do better than somebody who wants to rewrite history, you can do better than somebody who has done nothing to improve their economy.
Bush also spoke to a strong economy, touting a 4.5 percent unemployment rate and 7 million new jobs since August 2003. He said this year's holiday shopping season is showing positive early numbers.
And I encourage you all to go shopping more," he said.
Bush said he wants to work in a bipartisan fashion with the Democratic-led Congress, which was swept into power in November's midterm election. Areas of cooperation included looking for alternative fuel cell technology and pairing a minimum wage increase of $2.10 over two years with targeted tax and regulatory relief.
"We're going to have to get off foreign oil to be a more competitive economy," Bush said, promoting cellulosic ethanol and other fuels that are created with renewable sources like wood chips and switch grass.
"Nuclear power is going to be an essential source" of power in the United States and elsewhere, he said, noting that technologies are coming forward to reduce the amount and toxicity of waste.
Bush acknowledged that the November election was a call for Washington to work together to chart a new course in Iraq, strengthen the military and achieve important goals at home.
"As the new Congress takes office, I don't expect Democratic leaders to compromise on their principles. And they don't expect me to compromise on mine. But the American people do expect us to compromise on legislation that will benefit the country," he said.
As is usual for presidential press conferences, Bush was asked to answer several questions about his decisions, mistakes and legacy. With two years to go, the president has a lot of time left to leave an imprint on the future of the United States.
Bush noted that he's still reading about George Washington so it's a little early to be analyzing his tenure. He added that the most painful aspect of his time in the White House "has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat" under his watch. He said he did not second guess his decision to take out Saddam Hussein.
Responding to a question about the pregnancy of Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush did not touch the larger issue of gay parents.
"I know Mary and I like her and I know she is going to be a fine, loving mother," he said.