WASHINGTON – President Bush heard a blunt and dismal assessment Monday of his handling of Iraq from a group of military experts, 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 Dick Cheney and about a dozen aides for more than an hour, with the visitors telling the officials that the situation in Iraq is as dire as the study group said, but that alternative approaches must be considered, said one participant in the meeting. In addition, the experts agreed that the president should review his current 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 some others expressing doubt about that, according to sources who were 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 also suggested to the president that he shake up his national security team. That recommendation is likely to fuel existing 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 while the experts gave a bleak assessment, they still believed 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.
The carefully choreographed meetings are coming on the heels of the release last week of the Iraq Study Group 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 in Iraq from direct combat to training Iraqi troops, while pressing harder for a diplomatic solution by engaging Iran and Syria – something that Bush has pointedly refused to do.
Monday’s meetings are to be followed today by a video conference with military commanders before Bush receives Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi at the White House. On Wednesday, Bush is scheduled to meet with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and another group of military experts.
The president’s very public review of his administration’s 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.