Had it been a small group of liberals rather than conservative writers meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office on Tuesday, they might have run from the room like scalded dogs when he said: "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I've made are the right decisions." The president volunteered he knows people consider him stubborn and responds to such criticism with, "If you believe in a strategy ... you have to stick to that strategy."
Is this ignoring "facts" that things don't appear to be going swimmingly on the ground in Iraq? No, said the president. He believes the struggle will be a long one with "Islamo-radicalism." He said, "The politics of Iraq are going to just take a while to settle out. People still believe Saddam (Hussein) has a chance to come back." He acknowledged with hindsight "we probably could have trained people ... quicker," by which he apparently meant Iraqi troops, adding quickly, "there are all kinds of ways to look back," but "ideological struggles take time. We live in a world in which there should be, there needs to be, instant success ... things must happen rapidly." He said he thinks this comes from "too many TV channels" where even the most difficult situations are resolved in an hour or less.
Other points the president made regarding the Middle East included:
- "Fifty years from now, it is conceivable that there will be virulent forms of Islamo-radicalism competing. It's conceivable that moderate government be toppled and oil used as a political weapon. It is conceivable that a Middle East where young democracies have been undermined could be dominated by state sponsors of terror with nuclear weapons."
- "The long-term strategy is to change the conditions that enable this ideology to flourish, to out-compete it with better ideas." - He hopes to leave to his successors "foundations" for fighting terrorism and interrogating suspects that will allow future presidents to successfully wage the battle.
- About whether more troops are needed in Iraq: "If (Commanding) General (George) Casey feels like he needs more troops, we'll send them." He said he does not intend to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam during which tactical decisions about military strategy were made by civilians in the White House, and is leaving such decisions to the commanders on the ground.
The president pledged to "try all diplomatic means" in dealing with Iran. "We're in the beginning of dealing with the Iranian issue diplomatically," he said, adding this is what was done with Iraq. But he said insight into the Iranian government is "somewhat clouded." He also said "the world tends to be risk-averse" in its approach to nations and ideologies that threaten us, an apparent reference to European opposition to U.S. policies.
I asked him if he thinks Democrats will win a majority in Congress in the November election. "I don't think they're going to win," he stated. "I don't believe they'll win it, because I believe that these elections will come down to two things: one, firm belief that in order to win the war on terror there must be a comprehensive strategy that recognizes this war is being fought on more than one front; and two, the economy." He did lament that some Republican candidates think they can win by distancing themselves from his policies, noting that could send a message that people who do such things are political opportunists. He implied such a strategy might turn off the GOP base. The president said 12 to 15 races would decide who runs the next Congress.
That view was endorsed by a top White House strategist, who forecasts a post-election spread of 52-48 or 53-47 in the Senate, with Republicans maintaining their majority, and a loss of eight to 12 seats in the House, but with the GOP still in charge. With the president's approval numbers slowly rising to the mid-40s, the strategist say that all Republicans need is a couple more points to be OK.
The strategist, who spoke at an off-the-record lunch, predicted Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination in 2008 and will run against a very good Republican.
Look for the dominant issues leading up to the November election to be the war, taxes, education and the economy. No one at the White House wants to say it publicly, but gas prices continue to fall, and the president might wonder why, when gasoline was $3.50 a gallon, it was on the front page, but now that prices have dropped 80 cents or more in some places, one doesn't see as much attention given to it.
The president suggested he wants to again take on Social Security and Medicare reform, earmark reform and the line-item veto as his domestic priorities after the election. If he's right in his election forecast, he might be able to. If not, he'll be taking on investigations and possibly impeachment resolutions by mostly liberal congressional committee chairs. A lot is riding on the outcome. Maybe that's why he called us in.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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