"It's bad policy," Mr. Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday, about six hours after he returned from Iraq. "I know it may sound good politically. It will endanger our country to pull out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission."
The news conference was arranged to capitalize on Mr. Bush's stealthy 5½-hour trip to Baghdad Tuesday. The visit marked his first meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the president said he was impressed with the new leader's plans and character. "I sense something different happening in Iraq," Mr. Bush said.
He defended the decision not to tell the prime minister that the U.S. president was in his country until five minutes before they met and denied that it was because of any concern about al-Maliki's inner circle.
"I'm a high-value target for some," Mr. Bush said. "I think if there was ample notification that I was coming, perhaps it would have given somebody a chance to plan, and we just didn't want to take that risk."
With Iraq topping the list of issues that will dominate the fall campaign, Mr. Bush was adamant — he will not be running away from it, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod. Mr. Bush said he wanted to see a reduction in the deadly violence in Iraq but would not say how much it must drop before troops can begin to withdraw. He offered other ways of measuring progress in Iraq — an increase in oil production, more electricity delivered to cool sweltering homes or growing numbers of Iraqi military units able to handle the fight.
But again, he did not offer any specific targets to measure when Iraqis will be able to govern themselves. Instead, he declared that the government must be able to succeed and that leaving too early would "make the world a more dangerous place."
Democrats criticized Bush for failing to describe plans for a troop withdrawal.
"What we heard from the president today sounds like more of the same — 'stay the course,' which is a slogan, but it is not a plan," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi after leaving a White House meeting with Bush and other congressional leaders. "What we would like is an approach that says, when we reach certain milestones, then we begin a responsible redeployment of our troops and that the commitment is not open-ended."
Several proposals were before Congress to draw down U.S. troops, including one by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Mr. Bush's 2004 election rival, to withdraw U.S. combat forces by year's end.
"Don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen," Bush said.
But it won't be too long before U.S. commanders in Iraq make a recommendation on withdrawals, a senior military leader said Wednesday. Mr. Bush said he would make the final decision based on recommendations from his commanders.
Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham told Pentagon reporters that initial plans for the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, to make such a recommendation this spring had been delayed by the slow progress in forming the new government in Iraq.
"The government didn't form, so the conditions weren't quite right, so clearly the assessment and the recommendations will be pushed a little bit to the right," said Ham, deputy operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But I don't think it will be too terribly long."