President Bush on Monday praised a bipartisan commission on Iraq for asking him good questions but said “I’m not going to prejudge” the report the panel soon will issue. He pledged to search with victorious Democrats in Congress next year for common objectives in dealing with the conflict.
Bush said the goal in Iraq remains “a government that can sustain, govern and defend itself and serve as an ally in this war on terror.”
“I’m not sure what the report is going to say. I look forward to seeing it,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office at the conclusion of a separate meeting he had with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Bush said the goal in Iraq still is “a government that can sustain, govern and defend itself and serve as an ally in this war on terror” and that “ “the best military options depend on conditions on the ground.”
White House press secretary Tony Snow earlier described the meeting as a conversation in which both sides shared views. “This is not a deposition,” he said. Further, Snow said there was not a presentation of alternatives but rather an assessment of the situation on the ground now.
'Impressed by the questions'
Bush talked in the Oval Office with members of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. The group is to release its findings before the end of the year.
“I was impressed by the questions they asked. They want us to succeed in Iraq, just like I want us to succeed. So we had a really good discussion,” Bush said.
“What’s interesting is they’re beginning to understand that, with victory comes responsibility and I’m looking forward to working with the Democrats to achieve common objectives,” Bush said.
In the meantime, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, is leading an investigation within the Pentagon as to how to find success in Iraq.
Bush’s spokesman described the meeting as a “general conversation about the situation there,” rather than a preview of what the group will recommend.
“This was not proposal-shopping by the Iraq Study Group,” White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters.
On Monday, the Democrat in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee offered a grim assessment on the situation, accusing the administration of ignoring the reality that “we’re getting deeper and deeper into a hole — that we should stop digging and that we should look for alternatives in order to promote the chances of success in Iraq.”
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said the study group’s report “is going to have an impact on whatever action might be possible in this Congress and in the next Congress,” when Democrats take control. Levin said earlier that U.S. troops should begin coming home in phases within four to six months, a loose timetable that other Democratic leaders have not endorsed.
Cheney, others involved
The study group was spending the day at the White House speaking with members of Bush’s national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, CIA Director Michael Hayden, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Cheney, Hadley and chief of staff Josh Bolten took part in the meeting with Bush.
Even before it is finished, the study group’s report is seen by many as having huge stakes. It could give the Democratic and Republican parties a chance at consensus — or at least a tenable framework for agreement — after an election that gave Democrats congressional control and reshaped Bush’s final two years in office.
Meanwhile, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, met Monday with the Iraqi prime minister to “reaffirm President Bush’s commitment” to success in Iraq, the government said.
Nouri al-Maliki and Abizaid, who commands all U.S. forces in the Middle East, discussed “the effect neighboring countries are having on the security situation in Iraq,” the government statement said in a clear reference to Iran and Syria.
Middle ground by group?
Baker has indicated the recommendations will fall somewhere between the troop withdrawal strategy that Republicans like to say Democrats favor and the stay the course policy until recently used by Bush and widely ridiculed by Democrats.
On Sunday, Bush’s advisers adopted a new tone, days after a dissatisfied public handed the White House a divided government.
“We clearly need a fresh approach,” said Bolten, making the rounds of morning talk shows.
Levin and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that many Republicans would support a resolution on a phased troop reduction now that the election is over.
Yet the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, did not seem to go as far. He said he thought the withdrawal of U.S. troops should begin within a few months, but when asked if he would insist on a specific date, he said, “Absolutely not.”
The administration will not support a timetable for drawing down troops, Bolten said.