WASHINGTON – President Bush acknowledged Tuesday that the Iraq war is dominating nearly every aspect of his presidency, and served notice for the first time that he expects the decision of when all U.S. troops come home from Iraq to fall on his successors.
In an hour-long news conference, Bush said the “trauma” of war has left the public and even some lawmakers in his own party understandably shaken and skeptical of his vow that the United States will prevail.
“Nobody likes war,” Bush said. “It creates a sense of uncertainty in the country.”
With a series of polls showing Bush and the war less popular than ever, he rejected calls to change the U.S. military strategy or shake up the White House staff and war Cabinet. “I am happy with the people I surrounded myself with,” he said. However, Bush did not rule out bringing aboard a veteran Washington operative to help soothe relations with an increasingly restive Republican Congress, a move that aides said might happen soon.
“I’m not going to announce it right now,” Bush said, noting that he has had conversations with congressional allies. “Look. They got some ideas that I like and some I don’t like, put it that way.”
Bush dismissed the rising chorus of Republican criticism as election-year jitters. “There’s a certain unease as you head into an election year,” he said.
The chief aim of the White House news conference, Bush’s second this year, was to make his case again that Iraq is progessing toward a viable democracy despite daily images of car bombings and sectarian violence. It was part of a White House campaign to confront public anxieities about his leadership, the war and the future of his presidency, aides said. The offensive comes as a string of polls have shown that less than 40 percent of Americans approve of the Bush presidency and that a growing number no longer trust him.
“I understand people being disheartened when they turn on their TV screen,” Bush said. “Nobody likes beheadings” and other grim images.
Bush said he disagrees with former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, a man who had been handpicked by his administration, and others who say that the country is already enagaged in a civil war in which dozens of people are killed each day. “The way I look at the situation,” Bush said, “the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war.” If a civil war erupts, he said, Iraqi forces would be in charge of ending it, with assistance from U.S. troops.
As the debate over whether a civil war is at hand has shown, Bush’s optimistic assessments are often contradicted by Iraqi and other U.S. officials and sometimes by the conditions on the ground three years after the invasion. But Bush rejected the notion that his Iraq policy is based on wishful thinking. “I say that I am talking realistically to people,” he said.
Moments later, he said the reason U.S. forces went to Iraq was to “make sure we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy.” Since the invasion, Bush has emphasized different rationales for the Iraq invasion, such as the need to topple a dangerous dictator and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, which have yet to be found.
Bush said he would call home the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq if he was not confident about his victory plan. U.S. commanders in Iraq will determine when troop levels can be lowered, he said, suggesting that some will remain beyond January 2009. Asked if a day will come when there are no U.S. troops there, Bush said “that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.”