WASHINGTON – At a key juncture in the Iraq war, the military chiefs conveyed to President Bush on Friday their concern about a growing strain on troops and their families from long and repeated combat tours.
Bush met privately at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in preparation for decisions about how long to sustain the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, whether to change course this fall and how to maintain the strength of a heavily stressed Army and Marine Corps.
Indications are that Bush intends to stick with his current approach, at least into 2008, despite persistent pressure from the Democrat-led Congress – and some prominent Republicans – to find a new course. Still to be heard is the long-awaited assessment of Gen. David Petraeus, Bush’s chosen top commander in Iraq, executing the new strategy he announced in January to improve security in Baghdad.
Petraeus did not participate in Friday’s session but one U.S. senior official said the general, along with Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, would likely tell Bush and Congress in mid-September that the buildup had succeeded in making slow but sure progress on both the military and political fronts.
Petraeus and Crocker also would argue for a continuation of the current policy with some adjustments, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations.
Bush’s critics point to mounting evidence that while the troop buildup may have halted the escalation of sectarian violence in Baghdad, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation.
There are no signs that the Pentagon’s top generals and admirals are pushing for an early end to the war, but they are concerned not only about strains on troops but also about the possibility that the heavy focus on counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq leaves the military ill-prepared in the event of a crisis elsewhere.
Without revealing specifics of the Joint Chiefs’ remarks, Bush said afterward that they discussed preserving the military’s war-fighting capability for the long term and “monitoring the health of our all-volunteer force” – the latter an allusion to fears among some that war strains could break the military.
Included in the session was Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the former operations chief for the Joint Chiefs, who this summer moved to the White House to become Bush’s personal adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush did not speak in person after the meeting, but he issued a statement asking lawmakers to reserve judgment about the best next move in Iraq until they have heard from the top U.S. general and diplomat there. “The stakes in Iraq are too high and the consequences too grave for our security here at home to allow politics to harm the mission of our men and women in uniform,” the president said in the statement. “It is my hope that we can put partisanship and politics behind us and commit to a common vision that will provide our troops what they need to succeed and secure our vital national interests in Iraq and around the world.”
The service chiefs, who have no command responsibilities, are charged with maintaining forces ready for combat and ensuring they have enough time for proper training.