WASHINGTON — President Bush said Tuesday the decision about when to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq will fall to future presidents and Iraqi leaders, suggesting that U.S. involvement will continue at least through 2008.
Acknowledging the public’s growing unease with the war — and election-year skittishness among fellow Republicans — the president nonetheless vowed to keep U.S. soldiers in the fight.
“If I didn’t believe we could succeed, I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t put those kids there,” Bush declared.
He also stood by embattled Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
“I don’t believe he should resign. He’s done a fine job. Every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy,” he said.
In his second full-blown news conference of the year, Bush sought to ease his political problems by addressing them directly.
Acknowledging Republican worries
“Nobody likes war. It creates a sense of uncertainty in the country,” he said. “War creates trauma.” He acknowledged that Republicans are worried about their political standing in November.
“There’s a certain unease as you head into an election year,” Bush told a wide-ranging news conference that lasted nearly an hour.
More than 2,300 Americans have died in three years of war in Iraq. Polls show the public’s support of the war and Bush himself have dramatically declined in recent months, jeopardizing the political goodwill he carried out of the 2004 re-election victory.
“I’d say I’m spending that capital on the war,” Bush quipped.
When asked about his failed Social Security plan, he simply said: “It didn’t get done.” But the president defiantly defended his warrantless eavesdropping program, and baited Democrats who suggest that he broke the law.
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Calling a censure resolution “needless partisanship,” Bush challenged Democrats to go into the November midterm elections in opposition to eavesdropping on suspected terrorists. “They ought to stand up and say, ‘The tools we’re using to protect the American people should not be used,”’ Bush said.
'Tough fighting ahead'
The news conference marked a new push by Bush to confront doubts about his strategy in Iraq. A day earlier, he acknowledged to a sometimes skeptical audience that there was dwindling support for his Iraq policy and that he understood why people were disheartened.
“The terrorists haven’t given up. They’re tough-minded. They like to kill,” he said Tuesday. “There will be more tough fighting ahead.”
Later in the news conference, Bush was asked whether there would come a day when no U.S. forces are in Iraq.
“That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq,” he said.
Asked if that meant it won’t happen on his watch, the president said, “You mean a complete withdrawal? That’s a timetable. I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.”
The president said he did not agree with former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who told the British Broadcasting Corporation Sunday, “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.”
Bush said others inside and outside Iraq think the nation has stopped short of civil war. “There are other voices coming out of Iraq, by the way, other than Mr. Allawi, who I know by the way — like. A good fellow.”
“We all recognized that there is violence, that there is sectarian violence. But the way I look at the situation is, the Iraqis looked and decided not to go into civil war.”
Nearly four out of five Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, believe civil war will break out in Iraq, according to a recent AP-Ipsos poll.
Optimistic about victory
Bush said he’s confident of victory in Iraq. “I’m optimistic we’ll succeed. If not, I’d pull our troops out,” he said, warning that abandoning the nation would be a dangerous mistake.
“So failure in Iraq, which isn’t going to happen, would send all kinds of terrible signals to an enemy that wants to hurt us and people who are desperate to change the condition in the broader Middle East,” Bush said.
He said he agreed to U.S. talks with Iran to underscore his point that Tehran’s attempts to spread sectarian violence or provide support to Iraqi insurgents was unacceptable to the United States.
His opening remarks were designed to steel Americans for more fighting in Iraq and put an optimistic spin on the state of the U.S. economy.
“Productivity is strong. Inflation is contained. Household net worth is at an all-time high,” Bush said, crediting his administration’s policies.
'I didn't want war'
On Iraq, Bush bristled at a suggestion that he had wanted to wage war against that country since early in his presidency.
“I didn’t want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong ... with all due respect,” he told a reporter. “No president wants war.” To those who say otherwise, “it’s simply not true,” Bush said.
Asked about former supporters who now oppose him and the war, Bush said he’s trying to win them over by “talking realistically to people” about the war and its importance to the nation.
“I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win,” Bush said, adding that most Americans want victory “but they’re concerned about whether or not we can win.”
Bush scoffed at a question suggesting he should reshuffle or shake up his White House staff to help raise his sagging poll standings. But he did hint that he might bring in an experienced Washington insider to work with a disgruntled Congress.
“I’m not going to announce it right now,” Bush said, adding that he’s satisfied with the staff he’s surrounded himself with.
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