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George W. Bush Tries to Rally American Support for the War in Iraq

Aired November 30, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander-in-chief.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: No exit. President Bush says the United States has a plan to win in Iraq and it's working. A pledge to stay the course and another attempt to win the battle back home.

Hello and welcome.

The simple fact is that the war in Iraq hasn't gone the way the United States expected and the people of the United States know it. Six out of 10 Americans believe that the war wasn't a good idea and six out of 10 believe that the president isn't doing a good job running it. And so the Bush administration is fighting now on two fronts, to regain enough popular support for the war in the United States so that it can in turn keep sending enough money and troops to prevail in Iraq.

With that in mind Wednesday, the start of a new presidential offensive. On our program today, the president's new plan.

We begin with White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With Iraqi elections a little over two weeks away, President Bush is trying to rally American support.

BUSH: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief.

MALVEAUX: But battling growing criticism of the Iraq war and calls for U.S. troops to come home, Mr. Bush also signaled an eventual withdrawal.

BUSH: We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.

MALVEAUX: But keeping with his strategy, he refused to say when.

BUSH: These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.

MALVEAUX: The president's speech before the U.S. Naval Academy was billed by the White House as the first in a series of four, aimed at better explaining the U.S. in addition Iraq. But some Democrats and political pundits dismissed it as little more than administration spin.

JACK REED, U.S. SENATE DEMOCRAT: I was disappointed. The president relied too much upon rhetoric, upon a laundry list of tasks accomplished, but not a coherent view of where we are realistically and where we must go to succeed.

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Well, this speech was like the Sherlock Holmes dog that didn't bark. It didn't say a lot of new things. He did not lay out an aggressive or bold new plan for Iraq.

MALVEAUX: But the president gave new details about the state of Iraqi security forces and acknowledged shortcomings in their initial training.

BUSH: The civil defense forces did not have sufficient firepower or training. They proved to be no match for an enemy armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, so the approach was adjusted.

MALVEAUX: Ahead of the president's speech, the White House released a 38-page declassified document on its Web site entitled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" to show Americans the administration has a plan. The administration's hope is that that plan will generate some successes before the U.S. congressional mid-term elections.

GERGEN: The window is closing on him already and it's going to come slamming shut pretty hard on the even of the elections in 2006. The voters back here, if the war continues to be unpopular here, are going to punish the Republicans. Republicans know that.

MALVEAUX (on camera): Some moderate Republicans have already been calling for a clear exit strategy from Mr. Bush while others have noted his 36 percent approval noting, have been distancing themselves from the president altogether.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, the White House.


MANN: Mr. Bush says Iraq's own security forces are far more capable then they were a year ago. He gave specific examples in his speech including a recent offensive in the western city of Talafar.

CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre checked the facts on the ground.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Bush argues Iraqi security forces are on track to meet a key milestone: the ability to take the lead in defeated insurgents. And he cited the recent operation in Talafar in western Iraq as proof.

BUSH: The assault was primarily led by Iraqi security forces. 11 Iraqi battalions backed by five coalition battalions providing support.

MCINTYRE: True enough, say U.S. military sources. But critics point out those Iraqis all reported to an American commander and could not operate alone.

JAMES FALLOWS, "THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY": It was indispensable to have U.S. logistics support, U.S. planning, U.S. intelligence, all sorts of things that no one imagines the Iraqis are going to have, you know, next year, or the year after that, or for many years in the future.

MCINTYRE: Bush argues it's not necessary for Iraqi battalions to be self-sustaining to take the lead.

BUSH: As a matter of fact, there are some battalions from NATO militaries that would not be able to meet this standard.

MCINTYRE: That's also true. Many smaller NATO countries lack the basic airlift and logistics support to deploy far from home.

BUSH: Iraqis now have a small air force that recently conducted its first combat airlift operations, bringing Iraqi troops to the front in Talafar.


MANN: Jamie McIntyre reporting.

We're going to pursue that line when we come back. CNN's Nic Robertson out in the field with the new Iraqi army. How well trained are they?



BUSH: We're also transferring forward operating bases to Iraqi control. Over a dozen bases in Iraq have been handed over to the Iraqi government, including Saddam Hussein's former palace in Tikrit.


MANN: President Bush mentioned the handover in Tikrit as a sign of progress. Known as Forward Operating Base Danger, it changed hands earlier this month under mortar attack by insurgents. No one was wounded and there is no indication that anyone told the president.

Welcome back.

President Bush made a number of references to specific challenges and accomplishments in Iraq, including the base handovers, but the central element of the speech was, as we mentioned, the training that Iraqis are getting in fighting on their own.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has his own look at how they're doing.


LT. COL. ROSS BROWN, U.S. ARMY: When did he last clean his weapon?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): A revealing look inside the Iraqi army.

BROWN: That's the answer. But look at that weapon. What did he clean it with?

ROBERTSON: Inside, Lieutenant Colonel Ross Brown's daily battle -- getting an Iraqi army unit ready to fight alongside U.S. soldiers.

BROWN: Yes, tell him -- tell him -- look.


BROWN: The reason I ask the questions, the reason I'm hard on these things, is because I want these soldiers to survive.

ROBERTSON: Brown's mission is not easy. The Iraqi officers he's mentoring are not shaping up fast.

BROWN: They didn't do too much work yesterday. They didn't do too much work the day before. They haven't done too much work since they've been here.

ROBERTSON: Sixty miles north, this Iraqi Army officer, Colonel Thear, is about as close to a hero for U.S. troops as an Iraqi can become.

COL. STEVEN SALAZAR, U.S. ARMY: He is an outstanding leader and he is just simply a patriot.

ROBERTSON: So which is the real face of the Iraqi Army, under- prepared and underperforming or dedicated and on the verge of breaking through?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, MULTINATIONAL SECURITY COMMAND: Progress is uneven. And it's uneven across the country. It's uneven in units. It's uneven between the Army and the police. But in every case, we have a pretty good idea of where it's uneven and why, and it usually does come down to leadership.

ROBERTSON: Of the 212,000 men and women in the security forces, almost 100,000 are in the Army. Of those, only about 23,000 are battle- ready. That's 30 out of a total of 130 battalions.

According to Dempsey, getting the rebuilding right, making the Iraqi Army strong and cohesive, is more important than rushing training.

DEMPSEY: What we're looking to produce is something that will actually be fully capable and last, and will be something that is an institution of national cohesion as opposed to, you know, 212,000 men and women running around with rifles.

ROBERTSON: Colonel Thear is one of the battle ready battalion commanders. He has taken over from U.S. troops in his area, but lacks even an up-armored HMMWV. He is at level two readiness.

COL. ISMAEL THEAR, IRAQI ARMY: We told coalition forces just, we need like support. Still, you know, Iraq Army soldiers don't have helicopter.

ROBERTSON: Level one readiness means no support from U.S. forces required, and that's still hard to find.

DEMPSEY: And I don't know what the particular number today is on level one. But.

ROBERTSON: In the latest offensive, Operation Steel Curtain, close to the Syrian border, 3,000 U.S. Marines led the way, with 550 Iraqi troops mostly bringing up the rear.

Developing the Iraqi Army to this point has been hampered by Iraq's changing political leadership, according to Dempsey. Despite that, he's confident they are on track, as planned.

DEMPSEY: And I am going to get it done in the way that -- that we have agreed is right, and I'm not going to be pressured by the -- what is necessarily a, at the end of the day, probably a healthy debate back in Washington.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Ready or not, the Iraqi Army is coming under increasing pressure to take control. The current plan to recruit, equip and train expires in the summer of 2007. By then, the Iraqi Army will likely be standing more alone than it is today.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Baghdad.


MANN: A short time ago we also had a chance to talk to another journalist who has researched the training program closely. You saw him briefly in Jamie McIntyre's report. He's James Fallows, a national correspondent for the U.S. monthly magazine the "Atlantic."


FALLOWS: I thought the president, to his credit, did a more serious job of engaging criticism than the administration has done in many of its recent presentations where it mainly has attacked the motives of its critics. I think that nonetheless the central points of the speech were familiar ones.

One was the larger connection between Iraq and the war on terror and the second was the need to persevere with essentially the same strategy and tactics the United States has used for the last year or two.

MANN: Now, central to all of this is something that you have looked rather deeply into. You wrote an article called "Why Iraq Has No Army." The president says it does have an army and its army is getting better.

FALLOWS: It is, and that was one of the points I made in my article, that in the last year things have improved for the training of the Iraqi army. The United States has gotten better about this. It's gotten more sophisticated and serious and the Iraqis have responded better.

Nonetheless, the surrounding situation, the gap that the Iraqi force has to fill, has gotten worse and more worse in the last year than the training has gotten better. So by a relative measure of what -- when the United States would be relieved of the burden, that's still according to basically everybody I interviewed, is nowhere in sight.

MANN: Well, he didn't set any deadlines on this, so the question in the president's terms is not when this will happen, when the U.S. project will succeed, but simply how to make it succeed. Is time irrelevant in the way the White House would hope? Is there a limitless horizon during which -- or against which the United States can project its manpower, its political will, its influence in the region?

FALLOWS: That's a crucial question. And while the president is right in saying that you don't win wars on timetables, in the real world there are at least three time tables or three clocks that are ticking away.

One, and probably the most pressing to the U.S. military itself, is the strain on the American military. There is a new report from the army war college just released in the last couple of days saying that it was just inconceivable that the military could endure the operational strain of this for more than another, say, two or three years.

Second, there is the resistance within Iraq, or simply as in any country the presence of an occupying foreign non-Arabic speaking forces is an issue. And then, of course, there is the timetable of the U.S. electoral calendar, where a year from now there will be Congressional elections and three years from now presidential elections.

So while the president can be admired for his consistency in saying we're not going to be motivated by outside timetables, there are these real clocks and all of them pointing to three years from now as sort of an outside limit for the U.S. commitment.

MANN: Well, measure his plans against that timetable. Is it possible to succeed in three years?

FALLOWS: It certainly is possible, and it's possible for trends to reverse themselves. But on the particular point of equipping an Iraqi security force to be a credible provider of security there, it's very difficult to see how that could occur, partly because training any army, even in the best of circumstances, is a slow and demanding and difficult process, and these are far from the best of circumstances, apart from all the famous ethnic divisions within the Iraqi forces.

There is, number one, the legacy of the Saddam Hussein years, which left the country with a kind of corrupt officer class and no non- commissioned officer class, you know, the sergeants, whatsoever. There also is the fact that this army is being trained while it's being attacked and blown up and under a continuous assault, and that's sort of the worst possible circumstance to train a military force.

So I have not found anybody who has been involved in the training who thought that within the next two or three years the Iraqis would really be able to take the majority of the burden.

MANN: There is another aspect to this question, which is the information the president has or is presenting to the American public and the world about the readiness of the forces that are being trained. It seems that independent journalists, like yourself, find one set of statistics to quote on any particular question and the president finds another.

He was once again praising the Iraqi forces, comparing them in fact favorably to NATO forces in the course of that speech. Does the United States accurately measure the Iraqi forces it's training? Does the United States and does the world have an adequate picture of how well trained they are?

FALLOWS: Well, there has been an ever changing series of metrics, as they say, for counting how many Iraqi forces there were, going from simple head counts to now a unit readiness measure. And this was the same statistic the president was giving or the ones the Congress was looking at a month or two ago and drawing fairly dire conclusions from them.

As the president said, there is only one of the Iraqi battalions of more than 100 battalions that is fully independent and that's not really the most significant measure. The measure is how many of them would be willing to kind of act independently and really relieve U.S. forces from the burden, and that still is a relatively small number.

And, again, the point about which there is no dispute and which the president didn't really address is whether if American forces there were not there, would Iraqis be able to maintain anything like public order in Iraq for now or the next year or the next year or two, and basically no one contends they're in position to do that.

MANN: They have three years, it doesn't look like they're going to make it from the way you're speaking.

FALLOWS: I'm simply saying if you project from current courses -- now history is full of changes in course. It's possible the U.S. will become, you know, entirely serious about this matter of training Iraqi soldiers, it will get language specialists over there, it would make this job number one for the U.S. military. It's possible that something will go wrong in the insurgency. It's possible there could be some break in the logjam in politics. So nothing is impossible. But projecting from the trends of this moment and recognizing that every one of the assessments from the administration in the last two-and-a-half years has proven over optimistic, you would have to say you wouldn't bet on things being in shape in two or three years.

MANN: James Fallows, author most recently of "Why Iraq Has No Army" in the "Atlantic." Thank you so much for talking with us.

FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.


MANN: Just ahead, the politics of stagecraft. How the White House is trying to win back American support for the war in Iraq.

Stay with us for that.


MANN: The most famous speech ever made about the war in Iraq did not predict victory some time in the future. It declared the victory had already been won. President Bush announced what he called the end of major combat operations from aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003, a banner behind him memorably announcing "Mission Accomplished." The White House doesn't use that kind of language anymore.

Welcome back.

It doesn't use that kind of language, but it does use that kind of imagery, the commander-in-chief surrounded by men and women in uniform.

CNN's Dana Bash has this look at the way Mr. Bush is seen leading the war.


DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A sea of midshipmen warmly welcoming President Bush for a major Iraq speech at the Naval Academy.

BUSH: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins, so long as I am your commander in chief.

BASH: Another appeal for Americans' patience and support in an increasingly familiar and to some controversial setting -- a military crowd. In the last three months alone, Osan Air Base, South Korea.

BUSH: Setting a deadline for our withdrawal from Iraq would be, quote, "a recipe for disaster."

BASH: Elmendorf Air Base in Alaska.

BUSH: America will never run.

BASH: San Diego's Naval Air Station.

BUSH: We will stand with people of Iraq.

BASH: And to 10,000 troops and families in Idaho.

BUSH: And we will win the war on terror.

BASH: Lyndon Johnson tried military settings to boost morale for his unpopular war, even traveled to South Vietnam. But some historians say Mr. Bush breaks with presidential tradition by being so openly political with an audience of troops.

ROBERT DALLEK, HISTORIAN: Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, Harry Truman during Korea. They didn't go to military bases to contest what opponents were saying. They would make the argument in a political forum or in a speech before Congress, or in a State of the Union message.

BASH: To Bush critics it is crass.

KERRY: The troops don't belong to his point of view. They belong to America.

BASH: The White House defends the events as wartime obligation, not opportunistic.

NICOLLE WALLACE, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS: There is nobody in this country with more at stake and a deeper commitment and a deeper impact on their lives, than the men and women and their families of the United States militaries.

BASH: It is impressive stagecraft, though some call it preaching to the converted and question whether Bush aides choose these backdrops to avoid confronting skeptical every day Americans.

DALLEK: In the end, it doesn't help him very well, and in fact I think it does him a disservice.

BASH: What is not in dispute is that for the embattled president, this is his comfort zone.

Dana Bash, CNN, Washington.


MANN: The president has his own way of working, but his strategy in Iraq reminds many people of an earlier plan in an earlier war.

CNN's Bruce Morton has a look back.


BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Bush says the U.S. will stay in Iraq until the Iraqis can take control. If you're old enough, you'll hear echoes of that other war there.

LYNDON JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over many years, we have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence. Since 1954, every American president has offered support to the people of South Vietnam.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is the decision I have made. In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.

MORTON: The word back then was Vietnamization. When the South could defend itself against the Communist North and the Viet-Cong guerrillas in the South, the U.S. could leave. And in 1973, Richard Nixon announced a peace agreement and the American prisoners of war came home.

Could the south defend itself? Many were skeptical. One reporter asked Henry Kissinger, "Doesn't that just mean not on my shift?" Kissinger scowled, but that's just what it did mean. The Communists captured Saigon, as it was named then, in 1975, during Gerald Ford's presidency.

Why did U.S. policy fail? General Vo Nguyen Giap told ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, "It's our country," and Ho Chi Minh, though a Communist, was also Vietnam's George Washington, who proclaimed its independence from France at the end of World War II.

MORTON (on camera): Iraq is different. No Ho Chi Minhs amongst the insurgents, just killers. And there's at least a chance that next month's elections could produce a government that works.

Bruce Morton, CNN, Washington.


MANN: One last thing before we go. Words seem to matter to this White House. Fighting its war on terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it insists that its captives are detainees rather than prisoners or prisoners of war, for example. There are legal reasons for that, but with something less at stake, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come out against a different word: insurgent. He believes that the fighters who are taking such a heavy toll on civilians and soldiers in Iraq don't deserve such a neutral description. He suggests instead that we call them enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government, not insurgents.

We'll let you judge whether that phrase catches on.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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