WASHINGTON -- This is the center of the storm in the debate over the Iraq War, George W. Bush's White House. The president is meeting in the Roosevelt Room with nine conservative journalists to discuss the war, and, as with a hurricane, the eye of the storm is unbelievably calm.
Bush is as confident and upbeat as ever. Even once-friendly commentators like The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan wish he'd show some strain and worry as the war drags into its fifth year. But Bush must have confidence and optimism written into his DNA. As leaks, GOP defections and plummeting approval ratings swirl all around him, he remains resolute: The Iraq War must, and can, be won.
Asked about persistent reports that he is looking to find a compromise with Congress around the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group for a troop drawdown, Bush is adamant that he is going to see the troop surge through September and then rely on the advice of Gen. David Petraeus on how to proceed. "What you're asking me is that in order to placate people in Congress, am I going to write a strategy before the military reports back?" he says. "And the answer is, 'no.'"
Bush gives the impression that he is more steadfast on the war than many in his own administration and that, if need be, he'll be the last hawk standing. He has disdain for a story in The Washington Post, the product of authorized leaks from his own aides, that said he is going to begin talking about a post-surge policy in Iraq. "There's a lot of talkers in Washington," he says, implying that whoever was doing the talking was misinformed even if they work in his White House.
He says he'd like a compromise on Iraq for the long term, but sounds skeptical that it will happen: "The ideal world is that there would be some kind of bipartisan consensus at some point in time, to be there for a while. And can we achieve that? I don't know. It's worth trying, it's worth talking to people about it." But when he says that he's not going to abandon the surge, "it's just very important for you all to understand that's exactly what I mean."
He curtly rejects the suggestion that he will be forced by troop constraints to pull back the surge come next spring, no matter what. "I'm sure that in the bowels of the Pentagon, people are looking at troop rotations and troop movements," he says. "That is not the primary objective of our commander on the ground -- next question."
Nor will Bush allow the political environment to constrain his policy. He cites his decision to go forward with the surge in January, even though the "outcry was quite significant." He knew what people were thinking: "How can he possibly do this? Didn't he see, didn't he hear?"
What he saw was a war effort that was stumbling, so he removed his top generals and brought in Gen. Petraeus and his surge plan. His confidence in Petraeus is total: "My job ... is to say to David Petraeus, 'I trust your judgment, I trusted you going in and I trust you now.'" He calls Petraeus "the most credible person in the fight at this moment."
Bush says that one of his most important audiences is not just the American public, but the enemy, who "thinks we're weak." He says "these are sophisticated people and they listen to the debate." They doubt "that we're going to be tough enough. I really believe that the additional forces into Iraq surprised them -- a lot."
In trying to game out the future U.S. policy in Iraq, there is an intense focus on the periphery -- what is Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinking, what's the Lugar-Warner plan? But what's still most important is the center of this storm, where President Bush sits, apparently in no mood whatsoever to budge.
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