By: E&P Staff
At a briefing with reporters today, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow peppered with questions on two sensitive issues: Is the president really ready to send thousands of more troops to Iraq, and what does he think of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s apparent skepticism about such a plan?
Snow denied that the president had made up his mind about the troop gains, adding, “”I would warn people away from confident assumptions about what’s going on.”” But he certainly didn’t shoot down the idea, either: “”Everybody — I know you all want to know surge or no surge, the answer is, no answer.””
He also tried to paint a picture of Powell and the president on pretty much the same page, saying flatly, “”I don’t see any big disagreement.”” He parsed Powell’s Sunday TV interview, saying the White House did not agree with him that Iraq was in a “”civil war”” — and even contested that Powell had suggested that the U.S. was currently “”losing”” in Iraq or lacked troops to enact a major buildup.
Snow also said, referring to the Iraqis, “”If the government said, we want you to leave, we would leave.””
Here is a portion of the transcript.
Q Tony, there seems to be an assumption now in this town that there’s going to be some surge, maybe 25,000, maybe 40,000 or more. Is that a safe assumption?
MR. SNOW: No.I think the assumption is that the President will announce what he’s doing when he does it. And I would warn people away from confident assumptions about what’s going on. I have noticed that there have been a lot of very specific talks.
The one assumption that you can make is that the President is working with the Iraqis and also with military commanders, civil authorities, the State Department and others, to find a way forward in Iraq that is going to deal more effectively than we’ve been able to deal in recent months, with the problem, especially of sectarian violence, but also of insurgent violence, so that this Iraqi government is going to have the ability sooner rather than later to handle all of its responsibilities, and that the United States will be in a position to stand down as soon as it’s feasible.
Q So when he talked to Prime Minister Maliki on Friday, in the afternoon, and we weren’t notified about it until five or six hours later, he wasn’t calling Prime Minister Maliki to say, look, a surge of troops is coming?
MR. SNOW: No.It doesn’t work that way. And what he was getting was a readout from the Prime Minister about the speech that was going to take place the following day, the reconciliation speech. That was really the bulk of the conversation, was talking about what the Prime Minister intends to do.And the President did question him on this.
Again, Iraq is a sovereign government.The United States does not issue orders to the Prime Minister. What we do is in support of that government, and we do it in full consultation with the government. The President also did read out his meetings with Mr. Hashemi and Mr. al Hakim, both of whom had also reported to the Prime Minister.
So the bulk of the conversation really was listening to the Prime Minister talk about what he intended to do next.
Q Does that mean he has ruled out a surge? Will you say “”no””?
MR. SNOW: No, it means that I am not going to answer any questions about what he’s ruling in and out; and I expect to receive those questions each and every day until the President delivers his speech.
Q What did the President think of his own former Secretary of State, Collin Powell, saying that he doesn’t think additional troops would do anything?
MR. SNOW: If you look at the transcript, what he said was that — Secretary Powell talked about if you’re going to send troops, you have to answer some pretty important questions: One, what is the mission, precisely what is the mission; number two, do you have — can they accomplish the mission, do you have sufficient troops and equipment? He also talked later about a backlog of equipment and other things.
In addition, Secretary Powell made the same point that the President has made all along, which is, ultimately, this is going to be — the Iraqis are going to have to accept responsibility. He mentioned, significantly, the kind of political reconciliation that I’ve just read out, in terms of the Maliki conference on Saturday.
So what you saw is Secretary Powell acknowledging what we have acknowledged, which is the situation did change dramatically after the Samara mosque bombing, because you have had since then sectarian violence that had not previously been as major a concern, but really is a major concern now. And you do have to find ways of addressing it. And the military piece is certainly a part of it, but you do have economic pieces, you do have diplomatic pieces, you do have matters of political reconciliation. All those have to work together. And Secretary Powell also made mention of those in the context of his answers on the program.
Q He also said we are losing.
MR. SNOW: Well, yes, he did. He said — the way he put it was, he said, we haven’t lost, is what he said. He did not say we were losing. He said we have —
Q He said, “”we are losing,”” and then he said, “”we haven’t lost.”” He said both.
MR. SNOW: No, no, he said, “”If it’s grave and deteriorating, and we’re not winning, we are losing.”” That was his, “”we haven’t lost.”So that’s his characterization of the situation. He also made it clear that in his view, that the proper — that he suspected that the President was going to pursue a strategy that would, in fact, attack the kinds of problems that we’re discussing — political reconciliation, building capability among the Iraqis, the recognition that the Iraqis, themselves, ultimately had to have responsibility for taking care of things, and that, again, whatever you did, you had to make sure that the military had a clear mission. I don’t see any big disagreement.
Q But he said he also hadn’t been persuaded that some sort of surge would accomplish anything that —
MR. SNOW: I understand that, and I’m not going to talk about theories of surges or non-surges or commitments or any of that sort of stuff.
Q Secretary Powell also acknowledged that it is a civil war. Why won’t you make the same acknowledgment?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, because I’m not going to get into the nomenclature game. What you have is a situation of sectarian violence, and it’s of concern to us.
Q You don’t see any big disagreement —
MR. SNOW: I pointed to Helen, then I’ll point to you.
Q If the people of this so-called sovereign nation ask us to leave, would we leave?
MR. SNOW: If the government said, we want you to leave, we would leave.
Q If the people. I mean, there is a difference, apparently.
MR. SNOW: Well, I don’t know — I’d think that you deal with the government. The people elected the government, and the people risked their lives to vote for the government.
Q We’ve giving orders to the government.
MR. SNOW: No, we’re not. Sorry.
Q Just to be clear, you don’t see any big disagreement on Powell’s part with the President, or are you saying you don’t see any big disagreement on your part with what Secretary Powell —
MR. SNOW: No, I think when you look at the parts that I highlighted, these are all things that the President has talked about in recent weeks.
Q So it’s the Secretary you don’t think is disagreeing with the President?
MR. SNOW: Look, ask the Secretary. I think what you’re trying to do is to create fights and friction where none exist.
Q I just want to make sure I understand what you were saying.
MR. SNOW: What I was saying is that if you take a look at one of things he was saying, that the military needs a clear mission — agreed. When he says that, in fact, the Iraqis are going to have to have full responsibility — agreed. When he talks about the fact that you also have to have political reconciliation as a large part of it — agreed. So, I mean, all of those — if you look at key parts of what he’s saying, yes, it’s agreed. And he also was pretty clear not to —
Q — on the civil war part?
MR. SNOW: What?
Q About the losing and civil war part?
MR. SNOW: No, well, he — there, I think if you drill into what he’s talking about, “”grave and deteriorating,”” he’s referring to sectarian violence as he discusses later on. There may be some — I’m just not going to get into assessing the labels that he attaches, but the underlying situation on the ground is one that we are certainly aware of. And what he talks about is the most serious phase began earlier this year, with the blowing up of the Golden Mosque in Samara, that turned into sect-on-sect violence, communitarian violence, which is what I think is generated into what some of us are calling, anyway, a civil war. That’s what he’s calling; we call it a situation of alarming sectarian violence.
Q He also says we don’t have enough troops to secure Baghdad; we just don’t have them.
MR. SNOW: Right. He’s making the obvious point that the United States is working with the Iraqis in securing Baghdad. What he’s making the obvious point is that U.S. forces alone will not “”secure Baghdad.”” And that’s where it gets back to asking your basic questions: How do you work together?And you’ll note that he made the pivot there to the necessity for Iraqis to assume primary control over security operations. And they talked about the fact that, in fact, they are increasingly taking command of security.
He also pointed out, as I’ve said many times here, that the police are a concern — and you do have to have police forces that are capable of creating peace rather than disturbing peace. So, I mean, all of those reflect things that we have discussed here.
Q Tony, his point goes beyond that.His point is — at a time when the government or the administration is apparently sending a surge of 25,000 to 50,000 more troops in — his point, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is, we don’t have the troops.
MR. SNOW: No, if you take a look, he talked about stretch — but, again, I’m not going — what you’re trying to do is to draw me in to a discussion of options.We will discuss those when the time comes. But what he said was — let me just flip to it — first, number one, he says the situation is, in his opinion, recoverable.And the second is that he worried about some of the strains on the army, in particular.
Hang on a second, we have a — you’ll forgive me — how does this one open? I apologize. Somebody’s recorder — if this happens to be your recorder, please come forward, because I don’t know how to flip it open — never mind, I do. There we go.
So in any event, he has particular concerns about the army, and those have been expressed….
Q In terms of the level of discussions, I know you don’t want to say where you are in the field, et cetera, but, I mean, we are still — you had told us last week that he was — the President was closing in on a plan.
MR. SNOW: He was moving in a direction.
Q So is he still moving in a direction? Is it basically — I mean, are —
MR. SNOW: I’ve just — you know what —
Q — how active are the discussions, how wide are the discussions that are continuing?
MR. SNOW: They’re active and they’re wide. (Laughter.) I mean, you have just given me two terms that are very difficult for me to answer. It would be very — if I were describing a refrigerator, I could work on it.
Q Well, there were those who were saying that perhaps there’s a delay in an announcement because it’s Christmas coming up and if there’s going to be a surge then —
MR. SNOW: Like I said, everybody — I know you all want to know surge or no surge, the answer is, no answer.But the fact is that the President is taking a very careful look, and as I also noted, that when you’re looking at Iraq policy, it is not strictly military. There are lots of pieces that have to be done here, including working with the Iraqis, taking a look at how it affects others in the region. And it’s a very complex situation where you have all sides taking a good look at it so that you can try to make sure that if there is a diplomatic issue raised by some military action, then you want to find out. If you want to find out that there are military implications to some diplomatic initiative, you have to figure those things out.
So I think what happens is that there is so much intense concentration on the military piece, that people allow themselves to think that that is the only thing under discussion here. And in a situation as complex as the one in Iraq, you want to make sure that you are looking at every possible way of advancing the goal of that strong, independent, free, self-sustaining Iraq….
Q Has the President talked to Colin Powell directly about any of this? And what kind of weight does he give to Powell’s opinions, since Powell has been out of office for almost —
MR. SNOW: Well, let me put it this way, the President and Colin Powell — I don’t know if he’s spoken to him directly. But the President likes and respects Colin Powell. They still have a social relationship, and they still talk, and I suspect even if they haven’t talked, I wouldn’t be surprised if Secretary Powell has had conversations with others in the administration. I don’t know if he has, but he’s somebody who we quite respect.
Q Would the President give much weight to the comments he made yesterday?
MR. SNOW: What the President — again, Ann, I don’t know how you assign weight. What the President is doing is very practical business. It’s not like saying, aha, so-and-so has spoken. What he looks at are the real data and the real options that are presented to him. And many of the things that Secretary Powell has said have been reflected in things that others have said to the President. So certainly those are going to factor in.
One of the reasons — you heard the President say this, he’s not going to rush to a decision.He is moving as rapidly as possible, but this is one where you do have to be able to explain to the American people what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what you hope to achieve. And it’s important to get all the pieces right and be able to answer as many questions as possible because it is a complicated issue and therefore certainly he’s going to listen to what Colin Powell has to say as he’s been listening to quite a few others.