Meeting with his national security team at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush said Thursday that his New Year's resolution is to contribute a new "chapter of peace" in the world and keep U.S. troops safe in Iraq.
"My resolution is, is that they'll be safe, and that we'll come closer to our objective, that we'll be able to help this young democracy survive and thrive, and therefore we'll be writing a chapter of peace," Bush told reporters during a break in talks with advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Preparing for a speech to the nation on the way forward in Iraq, Bush said he is consulting with his top diplomatic and military advisers and members of the Iraqi government. Thursday's discussions follow the return of Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace from Iraq last week.
"They reported firsthand what they saw, what they found. It's an important part of coming to closure on a way forward in Iraq that'll help us achieve our objective, which is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," Bush said.
Bush did not get into specifics of the discussion, including whether U.S. military advisers are recommending a build-up of U.S. forces around Baghdad. Back in Washington, critics of the war are urging the Democratic Congress to resist any call for a large military buildup in Iraq.
"We're making good progress toward coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objective. As I think about this plan, I always have our troops in mind. There's nobody more important in this global war on terror than the men and women who wear the uniform and their families," he said.
Playing down expectations, the White House said Thursday's gathering was "non-decisional." Bush will lay out a new U.S. strategy in the first half of the month, officials said.
"He understands that the American people are, rightfully, very concerned about what is going on in Iraq — as is the president," deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said Wednesday, stressing that Bush is taking time to weigh all options before making a decision.
Rice and Gates met informally with Bush at the president's ranch Wednesday evening. Cheney, Pace, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley's deputy, J.D. Crouch, also attended meetings Thursday.
Though the president was mum on details of a plan, the surge option — to "go big" in Pentagon parlance — could involve 30,000 more U.S. troops and more U.S. advisers embedded in Iraqi units. Some military experts said last week that Bush's call last week for expanding the overall size of the U.S. military indicates his desire to beef up forces around the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
"Ninety-five percent of all the violence occurs within 30 miles of the center of the city," said retired Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, a FOX News contributor. "As Baghdad goes, so goes the rest of the country."
Scales said a short-term surge in Baghdad "can be done if done for a purpose" and would require participation from "reliable well-trained, well-led elements of the Iraqi military." An overall plan also must come up with the means to root out aggressive Sunni extremists in the country, he said.
One action that might foreshadow an increase in troops was Wednesday's announcement by the Pentagon that the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., will deploy to Kuwait to serve as the reserve force early next year.
The unit, which would include as many as 3,300 soldiers, is expected to be deployed into Iraq early next year. The move could be part of a short-term surge of troops to the battlefront to quell the ongoing violence.
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, said part of Gates' mission in Iraq was to get military leaders to support an increase in troops. But Korb said sending more troops only increases the Iraqis' dependence on U.S. forces and allows them to delay making the painful political compromises needed to end the violence.
"You can put a Marine or soldier on every street corner in Baghdad, but unless the reconciliation process begins, it's not going to make any difference," Korb said.
Military historian Frederick Kagan argues for a lengthier stay. He said stability in Baghdad can only be achieved by an infusion of 30,000 combat troops in Iraq for at least 18 months.
A three- to six-month surge won't do the job because the enemy would simply wait until U.S. troops were withdrawn to rekindle violence, Kagan said in an article released Wednesday by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
"The only surge option that makes sense is both long and large," he wrote.
Bush said he has more consultation to do before he addresses the nation about a plan, and that includes talking to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle so they understand the importance of the mission.
Bush added that "the key to success in Iraq is to have a government that's willing to deal with the elements there that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding. ... If we were to not succeed in Iraq, the enemy, the extremists, the radicals, would have safe haven from which to launch further attacks. They would be emboldened. They would be in a position to threaten the United States of America."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.