WASHINGTON – President Bush acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq and said he plans to expand the overall size of the “stressed” U.S. armed forces to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists.
As he searches for a new strategy for Iraq, Bush has adopted the formula advanced by his top military adviser to describe the situation. “We’re not winning, we’re not losing,” Bush said in an interview with the Washington Post. The assessment was a striking reversal for a president who, days before the November elections, declared, “Absolutely, we’re winning.”
In another turnaround, Bush said he has ordered Defense Secretary Robert Gates to develop a plan to increase the troop strength of the Army and Marine Corps, heeding warnings from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill that multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the armed forces toward the breaking point. “We need to reset our military,” said Bush, whose administration had opposed increasing force levels as recently as this summer.
But in a wide-ranging session in the Oval Office, the president said he interpreted the Democratic election victories six weeks ago not as a mandate to bring the U.S. involvement in Iraq to an end but as a call to find new ways to make the mission there succeed. He confirmed that he is considering a short-term surge in troops in Iraq, an option that top generals have resisted out of concern that it would not help.
A substantial military expansion will take years and would not be meaningful in the near term in Iraq. But it would begin to address the growing alarm among commanders about the state of the armed forces. Although the president offered no specifics, other U.S. officials said the administration is preparing plans to bolster the nation’s permanent active-duty military with as many as 70,000 additional troops.
A force structure expansion would accelerate the already-rising costs of war. The administration is drafting a supplemental request for more than $100 billion in additional funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of the $70 billion already approved for this fiscal year, according to U.S. officials. That would be over 50 percent more than originally projected for fiscal 2007, making it by far the most costly year since the 2003 invasion.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has approved more than $500 billion for terrorism-related operations, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. An additional $100 billion would bring overall expenditures to $600 billion, exceeding those for the Vietnam War, which, adjusted for inflation, cost $549 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
For all the money, commanders have grown increasingly alarmed about the burden of long deployments and the military’s ability to handle a variety of threats around the world simultaneously. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, warned Congress last week that the active-duty Army “will break” under the strain of today’s war-zone rotations. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “the active Army is about broken.”
Democrats have been calling for additional troops for years. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., proposed an increase of 40,000 troops during his 2004 campaign against Bush, only to be dismissed by the administration. As recently as June, the Bush administration opposed adding more troops because restructuring “is enabling our military to get more war fighting capability from current end strength.”
But Bush on Tuesday had changed his mind. “I’m inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops – the Army, the Marines,” he said. “And I talked about this to Secretary Gates, and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building, come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea.”
In describing his decision, Bush tied it to the broader struggle against Islamic extremists around the world rather than to Iraq specifically. “It is an accurate reflection that this ideological war we’re in is going to last for a while and that we’re going to need a military that’s capable of being able to sustain our efforts and to help us achieve peace,” he said.
Bush chose a different term than Powell. “I haven’t heard the word ‘broken,’ ” he said, “but I’ve heard the word ‘stressed.’ … We need to reset our military. There’s no question the military has been used a lot. And the fundamental question is, ‘Will Republicans and Democrats be able to work with the administration to assure our military and the American people that we will position our military so that it is ready and able to stay engaged in a long war?’ “
Democrats pounced on Bush’s comments. “I am glad he has realized the need for increasing the size of the armed forces … but this is where the Democrats have been for two years,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Kerry issued a statement calling Bush’s move a “pragmatic step needed to deal with the warnings of a broken military,” but he noted that he opposes increasing troops in Iraq. Even before news of Bush’s interview, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that the military is “bleeding” and “we have to apply the tourniquet and strengthen the forces.”
The Army has already temporarily increased its force level from 482,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 to 507,000 today and soon to 512,000. But the Army wants to make that 30,000-soldier increase permanent and then add between 20,000 and 40,000 more on top of that, according to military and civilian officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Every additional 10,000 soldiers would cost about $1.2 billion a year, according to the Army. Because recruitment and training take time, officials cautioned that any boost would not be felt in a significant way until at least 2008.
Bush, who has always said that the United States is headed for victory in Iraq, conceded Tuesday what Gates, Powell and most Americans in polls have already concluded. “An interesting construct that General Pace uses is: We’re not winning, we’re not losing,” Bush said, referring to Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who was spotted near the Oval Office before the interview. “There’s been some very positive developments. … obviously the real problem we face is the sectarian violence that needs to be dealt with.”
Asked Tuesday about his “absolutely, we’re winning” comment at an Oct. 25 news conference, the president recast it as a prediction rather than an assessment. “Yes, that was an indication of my belief we’re going to win,” he said.
Bush said he has not yet made a decision about a new strategy for Iraq and would wait for Gates to return from a trip there to assess the situation. “I need to talk to him when he gets back,” Bush said. “I’ve got more consultations to do with the national security team, which will be consulting with other folks. And I’m going to take my time to make sure that the policy, when it comes out, the American people will see that we … have got a new way forward.”
Among the options under review by the White House is sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops to Iraq for six to eight months. The idea has the support of important figures such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has been pushed by some inside the White House, but the Joint Chiefs have balked because they think advocates have not adequately defined the mission, according to U.S. officials.