President Bush, who has contended that the U.S. was winning the war in Iraq, said Tuesday for the first time that American forces were not winning there. He also said the military would be expanded to fight a long-term battle against terrorism.
Bush did not say the U.S. was losing the war, which began in March 2003 and has cost the lives of nearly 3,000 troops. Instead, when asked during an interview with The Washington Post whether the war was being won, the president borrowed the phrasing of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace.
"You know, I think an interesting construct that General Pace uses is, ‘We’re not winning, we’re not losing.’ There’s been some very positive developments. And you take a step back and look at progress in Iraq, you say, well, it’s amazing — constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, which is a remarkable development in itself," he said.
However, Bush also acknowledged the threat of sectarian violence, saying that part of the policy review for Iraq the administration has undertaken will deal with how to help the Iraqis provide for their own security.
"And I’ll come forward with a plan that will enable us to achieve that objective," he said.
Two weeks before the November elections, which shifted control of Congress from the Republicans to the Democrats, Bush asserted that "absolutely, we’re winning" in Iraq. On Tuesday, he said that response was "an indication of my belief we’re going to win."
In other remarks during the Oval Office interview on Tuesday, Bush said he plans to increase the overall size of the U.S. military, which has been stretched by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he has asked his new defense chief, Robert Gates, to report back to him with a plan to increase ground forces.
The president did not say how many troops might be added, but he said he agreed with officials in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that the military is stretched too thin to deal with demands of fighting terrorism.
"I’m inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops — the Army, the Marines," Bush told the Post. "And I talked about this to Secretary Gates and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building, come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea."
The White House said Bush’s decision about expanding the size of the military was separate from his search for a new approach to the war in Iraq. "This is necessary for the long term obligations in the war on terror," presidential spokesman Tony Snow said.
Bush’s comments seemed a stark departure from the views of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who ran the Pentagon for the last six years until he was replaced Monday by Gates. Rumsfeld had long resisted calls to increase the size of the military, arguing that technological advances and organizational changes could give the Army and Marine Corps the extra capability it needed.
Rumsfeld’s critics argue that relatively small-scale but grueling wars possible in the 21st century, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, would find the U.S. facing well-hidden terrorist groups and persistent local insurgencies. Such conflicts would inevitably demand strong, sizable U.S. ground forces to keep such operations going, they say.
Among the chorus of voices saying it is time to bolster the military’s size, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said last week that he wants to increase his service beyond its authorized strength of 512,000, though he used no figures. He warned that the Army "will break" without more troops and a heavier use of reserves.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has also expressed support for increasing the size of the Army and Marines, saying Sunday that they are "not large enough for the kinds of missions they’re being asked to perform."
Congress would have to approve the money for an increase in the size of the military, and the idea has won support in recent months from many lawmakers of both parties. Lawmakers would also find it attractive to boost the active duty force because that could reduce the reliance on local reserve units, which have been relied on heavily for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Snow acknowledged that Bush is considering sending more troops to Iraq, an option that worries top generals because of its questionable payoff and potential backlash.
Top generals have expressed concern that even temporarily shipping thousands of more troops would be largely ineffective in the absence of bold new political and economic steps, and that it would leave the Army and Marine Corps even thinner once the surge ended.
They also worry that it feeds a perception that the strife and chaos in Iraq is mainly a military problem; in their view it is largely political, fed by economic distress.
Bush said he has not yet made a decision about a new strategy for Iraq, which he is expected to announce next month. He said he was waiting for Gates to return from his expected trip to Iraq to get a firsthand look at the situation.
"I need to talk to him when he gets back," the president said. "I’ve got more consultations to do with the national security team, which will be consulting with other folks. And I’m going to take my time to make sure that the policy, when it comes out, the American people will see that we … have got a new way forward."
Bush said his decision to increase the size of the armed forces was in response not just to the war in Iraq but to the broader struggle against Islamic extremists around the globe.
"It is an accurate reflection that this ideological war we’re in is going to last for a while and that we’re going to need a military that’s capable of being able to sustain our efforts and to help us achieve peace," he said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., criticized any decision to send more troops to Iraq.
"Instead of changing course for the better, the president’s plan for more troops will make matters worse in Iraq — as many generals agree," Kennedy said in a statement. "We need a political solution that brings these warring factions together and makes Iraq take responsibility for their own future."