Bush hails troop cuts as 'return on success' in Iraq
But his speech Thursday ignores failure of Iraqi political reconciliation, critics say.
– Laying out a "way forward in Iraq," President Bush unveiled a plan Thursday night that begins a modest drawdown of troops this month but that would still have some 130,000 soldiers in Iraq a year from now.Skip to next paragraph
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Pointedly avoiding the word "withdrawal," the president called his drawdown policy a "return on success" that would be guided by conditions on the ground.
Mr. Bush's prime-time speech – his eighth televised address from the White House on the war – came on the eve of renewed congressional efforts, primarily from Democrats, aimed at drawing down US forces in Iraq and redefining the US mission much more rapidly.
The speech, designed in part to preempt those efforts and to rally flagging Republican support, followed two days of congressional testimony this week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and USAmbassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Bush said he was following General Petraeus's recommendations in announcing troop cuts that would basically return the US military footprint by the end of next summer to where it stood at the end of 2006.
Bush hailed the "success" of the "surge" of 30,000 troops he announced in January as the basis for a transition, to begin by the end of the year, from US forces "leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces."
He also focused heavily on Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, where tribal leaders have begun cooperating with the US against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist extremists. And while Bush announced the US would be developing an "enduring" partnership with Iraq that would require US forces to be there "beyond my presidency," he made little mention of the Iraqi government's failure to use the successes of the surge to pursue national reconciliation.
White House officials say the president sees his plan – troop withdrawals based on success on the ground – as an offer that can bridge the country's long divide over Iraq policy. In his speech, Bush said his plan of building on the surge's success to begin bringing troops home "makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."
That is not how many Democrats saw the speech, however, with Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island saying in the Democratic Party response that "Once again, the president failed to provide a plan to end this war."
Bush also repeatedly cast the US effort in Iraq as vital to national security and to defeating international terrorism, even though many critics believe on the contrary that Iraq is a drain on the military and is a distraction from the fight with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Some critics of Bush policy say they believe the president is really focused on a short-term desire to derail congressional momentum for more radical policy changes and a long-term goal of sustaining a sizable US presence in Iraq at least through the end of his term.
"The administration's strategy is to begin to draw down troops in a way that silences the main domestic critics and gives Bush the latitude to 'staythe course,' " says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What we're seeing is the translation into policy of Bush's desire to play this out until January 2009 and hand it off to the nextadministration."
Mr. Kupchan says the surge "is a failure" because it has not accomplished what Bush himself said it was designed to do – provide the "breathing space" for the sectarian factions of the Iraqi government to compromise on critical national reconciliation issues. In their congressional testimony, Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker acknowledged the disappointing political results of the past few months, but said Iraqi leaders were beginning to take important political steps, especially a the local level.