I'm in Washington to cover President Bush's speech to the nation tonight – and this morning, I got a special briefing on what the President plans to say -- from the man who will be saying it.
Mr. Bush invited a number of TV anchors and Sunday morning talk show hosts to the White House to talk us through the speech and answer questions about it.
One of the most interesting points he'll be making, I think, is that the Iraqi government has requested a long-term strategic presence by the United States. Mr. Bush compared that presence to the "Korean model" – where, 50 years after that conflict there are still tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground. But Mr. Bush emphasized that nobody knows for sure what this presence will look like. That decision, he indicated, would have to be made by the next president.
To no one's surprise, he re-iterated that he was going to follow General Petraeus's suggestion and – conditions permitting -- draw down about 30,000 troops by next summer. The president said his decision was a military one, not a political one. And on that, he was unwavering, even defiant.
He wouldn't commit to further troop reductions yet, but wants to wait for recommendations from General Petraeus that are coming in March. Mr. Bush did acknowledge that if things get better, they could draw down troops at a faster rate. He added that he understands the wear and tear this is taking on military families. When asked if he thought the military was stretched too thin, Mr. Bush said no. What the U.S. is doing right now is strategically very important, he said, and can continue as needed unless another hotspot starts to bubble over.
President Bush said he thought that recently Prime Minister Maliki has been stepping up a lot more – and he described him as a work in progress whose ability to work across party lines is still suspect.
Turning to this country: on the subject of politics, the president was very upset at the trashing of General Petraeus by his critics, and he thought that denigrating him before his testimony was awful – an example, he said, of how poisonous the environment is. Mr. Bush added that a lot of hard decisions will have to be made by the next president, and he believes the hostile tone of the campaign will change dramatically once the primaries are over.
He talked a lot about history during the meeting, and how history teaches lessons about dealing with military decisions. President Bush spoke about the weight of the war, and how he often thought about Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara selecting their bombing targets on the very desk that he uses.
Mr. Bush said that people will see what they want to see in Iraq. In his view, those who think the U.S. shouldn't be there in the first place don't see anything positive, while those who believe in potential success DO see positive developments.
When asked about today's murder of a key ally, Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the president said he wasn't worried that this would have a chilling effect. He said he believes it may strengthen resolve.
On Iran, President Bush said he's had discussions with other world leaders that might lead to basically allowing Iran to have a nuclear reactor, but that the international community would provide the fuel and monitor how it is being used. And he said many are working to try and affect the internal dynamics of Iran's government.
Our briefing concluded after about two hours, and revealed a president who is as defiant and determined as he was eight months ago, when he first announced his plans for the surge.
One final note: when asked if he was frustrated about not capturing Osama Bin Laden, President Bush talked about the damage already being done to Al Quaeda, and said he was confident that Bin Laden would one day be caught. And he said the most difficult part of his presidency has been that the post-conflict problems in Iraq have taken longer than he had hoped. Because, he emphasized, nobody likes war.