Washington President Bush, responding to a scathing bipartisan assessment of the Iraq war, defiantly rejected the idea that deteriorating conditions there require the United States to scale back its goals, saying Thursday that he remains committed to "victory in Iraq."
"I thought we would succeed quicker than we did, and I am disappointed by the pace of success," Bush said at a joint White House news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but he declared, "I also believe we're going to succeed. I believe we'll prevail."
As he has many times before, Bush cast the Iraq war as part of a global struggle between violent ideological extremists and defenders of freedom and democracy. "We will stand firm again in this first war of the 21st century. We will defeat the extremists and the radicals. We will help a young democracy prevail in Iraq. And in so doing, we will secure freedom and peace for millions, including our own citizens."
While praising the report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, for focusing on "a way forward," the president shied from embracing its recommendations on several key issues:
¢ The report urged the Pentagon to refocus its efforts on training Iraqi forces and suggested the possibility that combat troops could begin to pull out as early as 2008, but the president insisted they must stay until victory is achieved. "I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible," he said, but "our commanders will be making recommendations based upon whether or not we're achieving our stated objective. And the objective, I repeat, is a government which can sustain, govern and defend itself."
¢ The Baker-Hamilton panel urged Washington to begin direct talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, but Bush said such talks could not begin until Syria stopped its efforts to topple the government in Lebanon and Iran made a verifiable commitment to halt its pursuit of enriched uranium.
¢ The commission urged Bush to step up U.S. involvement to mediate the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, but the president said progress there depended on Palestinians forging a unified government committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict.
"Congress isn't going to accept every recommendation in the report, and neither will the administration. But there's a lot of very important things in the report that we ought to seriously consider," Bush said.
He acknowledged the need for new approaches to the Iraq war and promised to unveil his own new approach in the near future, after he receives additional reports from the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council.
"I know we have to adjust to prevail, but I wouldn't have our troops in harm's way if I didn't believe that, one, it was important, and, two, we'll succeed," Bush said.
While setting no formal deadlines, White House officials are hoping to pull together a broad response to the report and the other studies in time for Bush to present his latest approach to Iraq in a speech to the nation before Christmas.
Although Bush said he thought even the report's authors did not expect him to accept all its recommendations, Baker said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services committee: "These are interdependent recommendations we make, and we hope that when people look at them and start thinking about implementing them, they'll think about implementing all of them, and certainly at least as many as they can."
Baker and Hamilton spent much of the day defending their approach. They rejected the idea that the situation in Iraq is hopeless and said that outcomes short of Bush's original goal of a creating a democratic model for the Middle East remained possible.
"Are you saying we shouldn't do this because it's hard?" Baker asked critics who suggested the report's recommendations were unrealistic.
Asked whether Bush, to whom Baker and Hamilton personally delivered the report Wednesday morning, shared their grim assessment of conditions in Iraq, Hamilton said: "Well, he's getting closer."
At Bush's news conference with Blair, a British reporter noted that the Iraq Study Group had said the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating" and that Bush had called the increase in attacks "unsettling," wording that might suggest the president was "still in denial" about conditions there.
"It's bad in Iraq," Bush said, pausing several seconds before adding: "Does that help?"
As he expanded his response, his voice grew louder and his body language more agitated.
"I understand how tough it is. And I've been telling the American people how tough it is," Bush said.
Still, nearly a dozen times he used the word "prevail" to describe the U.S. goal in Iraq. He said he and Blair both believed that "victory in Iraq is important."