President Bush heard a blunt and dismal assessment of his handling of Iraq from a group of military experts yesterday, but the advisers shared the White House's skeptical view of the recommendations made last week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, sources said.
The three retired generals and two academics disagreed in particular with the study group's plans to reduce the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq and to reach out for help to Iran and Syria, according to sources familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was private.
The White House gathering was part of a series of high-profile meetings Bush is holding to search for "a new way forward" amid the increasing chaos and carnage in Iraq. Earlier in the day, Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other high-ranking officials at the State Department, where he was briefed on reconstruction and regional diplomatic efforts in Iraq.
The military experts met with Bush, Vice President Cheney and about a dozen aides for more than an hour. The visitors told the officials that the situation in Iraq is as dire as the study group had indicated but that alternative approaches must be considered, said one participant in the meeting. In addition, the experts agreed that the president should review his national security team, which several characterized as part of the problem.
"I don't think there is any doubt in his mind about how bad it is," the source said.
The group disagreed on the key issue of whether to send more troops to Iraq, with retired Gen. John M. Keane arguing that several thousand additional soldiers could be used to improve security in Baghdad, and others expressing doubt about that proposal, according to sources at the meeting. But the five agreed in telling Bush that the Army and Marine Corps both need to be bigger, and also need bigger budgets.
The group suggested the president shake up his national security team. "All of us said they have failed, that you need a new team," said one participant. That recommendation is likely to fuel Pentagon rumors that Bush and his new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, may decide to replace Marine Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
White House officials emphasized that although the experts gave a bleak assessment, they still believe the situation in Iraq is "winnable."
"I appreciate the advice I got from those folks in the field," Bush said after emerging from the morning session. "And that advice is . . . an important component of putting together a new way forward in Iraq."
The carefully choreographed meetings are coming on the heels of the release last week of the Iraq Study Group's report, which pronounced the situation in Iraq "grave" and recommended fundamental shifts in how the Bush administration handles the war. To stem the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the report said, the administration should shift the focus of its military mission from direct combat to training Iraqi troops, while pressing harder for a diplomatic solution by engaging Iran and Syria -- something Bush has pointedly refused to do.
Yesterday's meetings are to be followed today by a videoconference with military commanders before Bush receives Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi at the White House. On Wednesday, Bush is scheduled to meet with his outgoing defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and another group of military experts.
Coming amid growing public discontent with the war and the defeat of his party in last month's congressional elections, the president's very public review of his Iraq policy is expected to culminate in a major address in which he will lay out what the administration has billed as a "new way forward" in the nearly four-year-old conflict. Press secretary Tony Snow said the administration is hoping for the president to deliver the speech before Christmas, although he said the timing has not been nailed down.
Even as the president has been reviewing his approach to the war, he has not backed off his position that victory in Iraq is crucial to victory in a larger fight against terrorism. Bush also calls it essential for Iraq to be stabilized as a functioning democracy -- a sweeping goal on which the Iraq Study Group's report was notably silent.
"Iraq is a central component of defeating the extremists who want to establish safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States," Bush said. "This is really the calling of our time, that is, to defeat the extremists and radicals."
When the White House review began, the interagency group debated whether to try to beat the Iraqi Study Group's report or let it play out and then look "bigger and better" by doing a report later, said an official familiar with the discussions. It was agreed to wait. But the emphasis throughout the month-long process has been to produce a strategy that would be deliberately distinct, the official added.
‘Lack of thinking’
The White House review does not have the depth or scope of the Iraq Study Group's, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. "There's a lack of thinking on other big issues -- oil, the economy, infrastructure and jobs," said one source who was briefed on the interagency discussions and requested anonymity because talks are ongoing.
During yesterday's White House meeting, Bush asked all the questions, except for one at the end from Cheney, a source said. But Cheney took copious notes throughout, filling several pages, he said. "They didn't really reveal their own views" in their questions, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, one of the five participants.
As a whole, the group of retired generals and academics who met Bush tend to be skeptical of the Iraq Study Group's proposals, and so were able to give him additional reasons to reject its recommendations.
The first to speak was Eliot A. Cohen, an expert in military strategy at Johns Hopkins University, who has criticized the study group's findings, particularly on engaging Iran and Syria and on decreasing combat troops. He was followed by Keane, McCaffrey and Wayne A. Downing, all retired four-star Army generals. Two have told friends they are skeptical of the study group's recommendation to cut U.S. combat forces over the next year while quadrupling the size of the training and advisory effort, which currently numbers around 4,000.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.