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War Messages That Don't Quite Match

The president and top Defense officials have given conflicting statements on bringing troops home from Iraq. Some see a policy split.

August 13, 2005|Ronald Brownstein and Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Are the president and the Pentagon on the same page over the war in Iraq?

That question is percolating in Washington after President Bush twice in the last 10 days tried to clarify a message sent by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and military leaders.

After Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials indicated their desire to shift away from discussing the struggle against terrorism as a "war" -- saying it placed too much emphasis on military solutions to terrorism -- Bush repeatedly used the word "war" in an Aug. 3 speech to conservative state legislators.

Then on Thursday, Bush dismissed as "rumors" and "speculation" reports that U.S. commanders were contemplating significant withdrawals of American troops from Iraq next year. His comments came after Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, and Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the top ground commander, had publicly raised exactly that possibility.

This dissonance on message is unusual in an administration that prides itself on coordination and discipline.

"The president has now twice in effect overruled or corrected" the Pentagon, said Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "I think the president realizes how much damage was being done by the appearance coming out of the Pentagon of seeking urgently to get out" of Iraq.

One GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said that, on both issues, the president had moved to regain control of the administration message to erase any doubt that he is committed to his course in Iraq and the broader struggle against terrorism.

"If the public begins to believe that the political leadership doesn't believe in the cause and is just going through the motions, that's the danger," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing internal administration deliberations.

So instead of encouraging talk of troop withdrawal to salve public anxiety about the war, the White House upended conventional wisdom by reaffirming the president's resolve -- which they see as the cornerstone of his public support.

"Will the president pull stakes and leave because of political pressure?" one White House official said. "The answer is absolutely no. If you look at presidents for the past 50 years, you'd be hard pressed to find someone -- maybe Ronald Reagan -- who would be as hard as nails on this."

Officials in the White House and Pentagon insist they are not divided on Iraq and that any withdrawal would be "conditions-based."

"This department has been very clear and very consistent with respect to any adjustments being made to force levels," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "Somebody tell me where there's daylight."

Yet some observers point to areas where the White House and Pentagon have differed in recent months.

For instance, Pentagon officials repeatedly have said that they believe the insurgency will last for many years; privately, Casey has told visiting senators that the U.S. military's role is to "hold the line" until political and military progress allows the Iraqis themselves to combat the violence.

By forecasting a gradual drawdown in Iraq, commanders can demonstrate progress to the American people and boost the morale of a strained military.

By contrast, Bush has suggested that withdrawal would only follow success in defeating the insurgency. "When that mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will come home," he said Thursday.

Even after the president's remarks, most foreign policy and military analysts believe a combination of military and political imperatives -- including next fall's midterm U.S. elections -- make troop withdrawals in 2006 almost inevitable.

"I think we are going to end up where the Pentagon wants to end up," said Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution who was a National Security Council aide to President Clinton.

But, Daalder said, the recent rhetorical tension might reflect the president's desire to announce troop withdrawals after next winter's election of a permanent Iraqi government rather than against the backdrop of this summer's violence. That way, Daalder said, the president could argue "we are leaving in a position of strength."

The strain between the Pentagon and White House has emerged as steady violence and a sharp increase in American casualties exposes Bush to increasing political pressure over Iraq.

Recent opinion surveys have found broad public disenchantment with the war. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released this week, 54% of Americans said "no" when asked if they thought "it was worth going to war in Iraq." A majority has answered "no" all eight times Gallup asked that question this year.

Bush's breaks with the Pentagon have come over language that some in the White House fear is being interpreted as a weakening commitment to fighting in Iraq and elsewhere.

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