Bush's Press Secretary Defends Iraq War Policy

Tuesday, July 10th 2007, 7:15 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A report citing a lack of progress by the Baghdad government is only ``a look at the starting line'' of the U.S. troop surge and shouldn't be used by critics to demand withdrawal, President Bush's spokesman said Tuesday.

``What Congress will get this week is a snapshot of the beginning of the retooling of the mission in Iraq,'' said Tony Snow, who defended the administration's war policy and argued that it's too soon to be talking about end-game strategies.

``Some of the benchmarks have been made, some of them haven't,'' he said. Snow confirmed existence of the coming report revealed earlier to The Associated Press by a senior administration official, although the press secretary also described news accounts about it as too gloomy.

``Benchmarks are not a way to figure out how to get out of Iraq,'' Snow said on CNN. ``They're a device for figuring out how to succeed in Iraq.''

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had said on Monday, ``What many of us are looking for is a new strategy that would not be a precipitous pullout with all of the problems that would cause, but rather a plan to exit over the next year.''

The administration, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has stressed a September time frame for a wide-ranging assessment of operational strategy after about 4 1/2 years of battle, and has said such a review would be more appropriate then.

But concern about continued U.S. troop losses, indications of drift within the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and declining public support in this country for the war have driven some key Republicans closer to the position of Democrats demanding withdrawal.

The new report will be released later this week, perhaps Thursday or Friday, at about the same time as the Senate takes up a $649 billion defense policy bill and votes on a Democratic amendment ordering troop withdrawals to begin in 120 days.

One U.S. official said late Monday that the July report would push the administration to consider its next move. Another senior official, however, said that Bush and his advisers had already decided no change in policy was justified as yet because there was not enough evidence from Iraq.

Whether conditions merited a course shift, such as troop reductions or other scaling back of U.S. operations, would be decided after the September report, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely about internal deliberations.

Snow reinforced that position in his on-camera interviews Tuesday.

``There are a lot of discussions about everything,'' he told NBC's ``Today'' show. ``We're now about two weeks into having the surge operational. What we want to see now is whether the surge is working. We're at the starting point now.''

Snow also said that people should pay more attention to assessments about Iraq from U.S. lawmakers who have visited there recently, although he said he would not want to conjecture about what message Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will bring back from his trip there during the Fourth of July recess.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said his Republican colleagues were under great pressure to choose between Bush's Iraq strategy and public opinion against the war.

``They're not going to stick with this failed strategy,'' he told CBS' ``The Early Show.''

``How many dead, wounded and disabled are there going to be while they continue to thrust our boys into the middle of a civil war?'' Biden said.

Meantime, another Republican senator publicly criticized Bush's policy.

``The president needs a new strategy ... A strategy can't sustain itself unless is has more support inthe country and the Congress,'' Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told CNN Tuesday.

The Senate is expected among other things this week to vote on a proposal by Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., that would require that U.S. troops spend as much time at home as they do in combat. Another proposal, by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., would order troop withdrawals in 120 days.

GOP support for the war has eroded steadily since Bush's decision in January to send some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. At the time, Bush said the Iraqis agreed to meet certain benchmarks, such as enacting a law to divide the nation's oil reserves.

This spring, Congress agreed to continue funding the war through September but demanded that Bush certify on July 15 and again on Sept. 15 that the Iraqis were living up to their political promises or forgo U.S. aid dollars.

Snow had sought Monday to lower expectations on the report, contending that all of the additional troops had just gotten in place and it would be unrealistic to expect major progress by now.

``You are not going to expect all the benchmarks to be met at the beginning of something,'' Snow said. ``I'm not sure everyone's going to get an `A' on the first report.''