By: E&P Staff
At today’s meeting with reporters at the White House, the major topics for Press Secretary Tony Snow, as expected, were the pending release of the Iraq Study Group’s report — and today’s surprise, the admission by Robert Gates, at his confirmation hearings as new Pentagon chief, that the U.S., indeed, is not winning the war in Iraq.
Snow said that, as far as he knows, the president has not backed away from his recent statement that the U.S. is actually “”winning”” in Iraq. He also suggested that Gates, elsewhere in his testimony, seemed to say that maybe we weren’t losing and we weren’t winning. And he charged that the press was being too negative about all this: “”What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission,”” he said.
He was also pushed on the question of the Iraq conflict turning into a civil war — which he seriously questioned. “”Well, I think one of the dangers is that civil war had been used in a political context,”” he said. “”It’s interesting — what intervened other than an election to get people to change the label?””
A reporter shot back: “”The violence got worse, I suppose.””
Snow concluded: “”I said it’s very difficult to figure out that there is any clear definition, and if you have one, please pass it on.””
Here are the relevant portions of the transcript.
Q Can I just also come back to what Steve was asking about. Gates was asked an up or down question, is the United States winning —
MR. SNOW: Right, and then he was asked a follow-up question, as well.
Q Yes, I understand that. But he did say — “”Are we winning?”” His answer was, “”No.”” The last time the President was asked, it was, “”Absolutely, yes.””
MR. SNOW: What I would suggest is, number one, I know that you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the President. It doesn’t exist.Read the full testimony and you’ll see.
The second thing is that it is really important to realize that there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’ve already referred to a couple of them. You’ve got the Prime Minister moving aggressively on a number of fronts, in terms of building Iraqi capabilities. He’s dealing on a regional basis with his neighbors. He is talking about a reconciliation conference this month.There has been also a great deal of work on the Iraqi economy….
You put all that together, and what you have is an Iraqi government that is also very actively engaged in trying to build the capability. So there are a lot of things going on here.
Q If the President were asked that same question today, would he say, absolutely, yes?
MR. SNOW: I’m not going to tell you what the President would say, but you can look at the President’s answer and you can look at Bob Gates.What I would also suggest, though, is you take a look at the Gates testimony, and you see if that’s consistent with what we’ve been talking about, because what you’re going to try to take is that one little question, rather than taking a fuller look at —
Q These are questions that Americans typically ask.
MR. SNOW: That’s right, but the other question that Americans might want to ask is, is it a static situation, and do you see progress on the part of the Iraqis, and do you see a concerted effort on their part to be serious about winning and governing? That’s an important thing to, and it’s also important to note that the Iraqis —
Q Tony, does —
MR. SNOW: I’ll finish here in a moment. It’s not a filibuster, but I’m trying to wrap up the answer – that, in fact, you see also the increased willingness and success in actions, for instance, against al Qaeda in Anbar and also within Baghdad. There are a lot of things going on.
So when you ask a steady state question, you’re trying to treat it as a portrait in an unchanging situation. In fact, it’s a pretty dynamic situation. There are a lot of things going on, a lot of things that the Iraqis themselves say give them heart and confidence and determination.They know something.
Q Does the President today believe that we are winning in Iraq? It’s a very straightforward question.
MR. SNOW: I know, but I did not ask him the question today. The most recently asked, he said, “”yes.””
Q Okay, so that might change from day to day. So it may have changed —
MR. SNOW: No, I don’t —
Q — he may no longer believe that we’re winning the war in Iraq. You don’t know.
MR. SNOW: I have no reason to think it changed, but also, again, go back and take a look at the broader answer that Bob Gates gave and ask yourself, is this consistent or inconsistent with what the President has been saying? I think you’re going to find it’s very consistent.
Q Even though it was precisely the same thing, he said, we are not winning, and —
MR. SNOW: No, he said — I believe the answer was, either “”yes, sir,”” or “”no, sir.””
Q And then he went into the fact that “”but we’re not losing.”” But this administration has said we are winning. Leading up to the midterm elections, President Bush was asked pointedly at his press conference, are we winning? He said, yes, we’re winning, and he went on to explain why. He explained why we’re not winning. You from this podium said —
MR. SNOW: No, I don’t believe — what Bob Gates — I don’t believe that Bob Gates said that we were —
Q He supported his statement. And you from that —
MR. SNOW: But how did he support it? Did he support the statement by saying anything that was inconsistent with what the President has said? And I don’t think he did.
Q But his statement is inconsistent with what the administration says. The President has said, we are winning.You from that podium said, we’re winning —
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q — but we haven’t won.
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q He said — he agreed that we are not winning. So how is that consistent —
MR. SNOW: And he also said we’re not losing….
Q You seem to be describing Gates as having literally no daylight between him and the President on the overall —
MR. SNOW: Well, obviously, there was a difference on that answer.
Q But when the President sat down with Gates November 5th or whatever day it was, at the ranch when he was — when they talked, presumably they talked about Iraq. At that point, did Gates say, you’re not winning in Iraq?
MR. SNOW: I have no idea. I mean, that’s a conversation that the President and Bob Gates had. It was confidential. It’s not been read out, and I don’t know.
Q What would the President do if he becomes Secretary, if Gates walks in and tells him something the President disagrees with?
MR. SNOW: Well, he’s an advisor to the President. This is not a debating society, and the President is not somebody who — the President takes seriously the counsel of people who work for him, and he’s bringing in Bob Gates because he believes he is capable of doing the one thing that Bob talked about doing, which is winning. And he knows he’s committed to that. And he respects him and he’s willing to listen to the suggestions he may have. You’ve heard the President say many times, deferring to combatant commanders — he looks for people whose expertise and whose talents place them in a position where they can be responsible and he can trust them, and he can also trust their words. And that’s exactly what he does with Bob Gates.
And there are any number of times, Ann, as you know, when an advisor may come in and tell a President something that a President may or may not wish to hear, but this is a President who is not afraid of having somebody tell him what they consider to be the truth. As a matter of fact, he welcomes it. It’s one of the fun things about working in this White House, is that there is plenty of opportunity for people to express their views.
Q Tony, do you think it’s demoralizing for the man who, if confirmed, will be the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon to say to troops out in the field who hear this that America is not winning the war?
MR. SNOW: No, because, again, I’d ask you to do something that would be fair to the troops, which is to look at the full testimony.
Q He was asked point-blank twice by two U.S. senators — he was asked by Senator Levin —
MR. SNOW: I understand that —
Q He was asked the question, is America winning the war? He answer was, “”No, sir.”He was asked by another Senator, he was asked by John McCain, do you agree with that statement that you made earlier? His answer was, yes. It’s point-blank. It’s yes or no. He said, no —
MR. SNOW: And then he was also — he was also —
Q My question is, do you think it’s demoralizing to the troops out in the field to hear that from the man —
MR. SNOW: What I think is demoralizing is a constant effort to try to portray this as a losing mission. You know what you ought to do? You ought to talk to some of the troops when they come back. Give them a call. I think you’ll find that they are committed to the mission, and furthermore, you will find that Bob Gates, in his testimony today, did nothing to give the indication that he lacks confidence in either the mission or the people conducting it.
Q But troops haven’t heard their Secretary of Defense, or the man who will become Secretary of Defense, ever say, we are losing the war.
MR. SNOW: He also said we’re not winning the war. And then he proceeded to talk about what it takes.Ask yourself again — you want to know if it’s demoralizing? Ask them. I think what they — you know what’s interesting, because what comes back a lot of times is they say, we’re tired of getting press reports that have a constant failure narrative and never talk about what we’re achieving in the field. We’re committed to it and we know that we have to win. There’s a sense of determination, mission and morale on the part of U.S. troops, that if you spent any time with them — and I presume you have — you will know that it’s very impressive, and it’s inspiring for those of us who have had the opportunity to be with them. And that’s not going to go away.
What they also have in Bob Gates is somebody who is going to give them everything they need. You also had conversations today about what you do to provide necessary support for the troops, and he was absolutely unstinting in his determination to do whatever it takes to get them what they need to get the mission done, and part of that mission, of course, is training up Iraqis so Americans can come home. Move out of combat missions, get into the training business and eventually have an Iraq that can defend, sustain and govern itself.
Snow was also asked about the great “”civil war”” debate.
MR> SNOW: The thing is there is no simple dictionary definition that gives you the ability to go through this. And Jim and I went through it with the Webster’s last week.
Q Well, I’m just wondering, though, about the significance of — you had Colin Powell and Kofi Annan join the list of those saying it is a civil war.
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q So what is the significance? It’s one of these questions —
MR. SNOW: Well, I think one of the dangers is that civil war had been used in a political context. It’s interesting — what intervened other than an election to get people to change the label? And that’s —
Q The violence got worse, I suppose.
MR. SNOW: Well, the violence was awfully — October was the worst month.
Q That’s what I mean, it got — so it wasn’t that it was an election, it was that the violence was driving it.
MR. SNOW: No, it was — no, I’m not so sure. And so you wonder, is the label politically driven? And I think at this point, rather than getting into a dispute about that, as I’ve said before, this is a time — and we’ve heard Democrats and Republicans both talking about this — we’ve got an opportunity for people to say, okay, let’s just figure out what the situation is.Where is the violence?Who is responsible? How do you deal with it? What are the most effective ways? How do we win? And how do we build that sense of national unity around this, which I think offers us an important moment?
Q But if we had a question where — if there was a point where everyone could agree it was a civil war, and that’s the way it was being referred to —
MR. SNOW: Well, if you can get everybody to agree —
Q Let me just ask this question, Tony.
MR. SNOW: All right.
Q What would change in terms of how the United States’ effort in Iraq was conducted, what would change in the White House if it were a civil war as opposed to —
MR. SNOW: I’m not sure — I think the term has more political resonance in the sense that it has been used to describe a situation that would be hopeless, in which our people would be targets. And so that is what I think the linguistic use of the term has been in political circles.
Q So once you’re talking about civil war, we’re talking about a situation without hope?
MR. SNOW: I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s the way I think it’s been spun politically. That is not — but again, I don’t think at this point, trying to get into the fight over labels — because, again, I spend a lot of time on it, Jim, and I’m not going to argue with John Keegan and I’m not going to argue with other scholars.The most important thing to do is to figure out what exactly the situation is, the facts on the ground, and how to move to victory.
Q Since there’s still confusion or ambiguity on the definition, why not pull the metrics together as to define?
MR. SNOW: I’m not sure that — look, Congress regularly gets a 1090 report that is nothing but metrics, gets it every quarter. So it’s not as if we’re not laying out the metrics. The question is whether you want to spend all your time trying to figure out whether that fits a dictionary definition of civil war, insurgency. What you have is violence, and the challenge is to tamp it down, so that the Iraqis can live in peace.
Q Are you telling us that the label is unimportant?Is that what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter what you call it?
MR. SNOW: I’m not sure that’s what I said. I said it’s very difficult to figure out that there is any clear definition, and if you have one, please pass it on.