Bush speaks of goals for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, decries calls for timetable

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Thursday, December 1, 2005

President Bush during his address to the Naval midshipmen. Photo by Paul Morse

U.S. President Bush re-stated his commitment to withdraw troops from Iraq and outlined goals for training Iraqi security forces that will guide such withdrawal. The presidential speech followed from a newly released White House document titled the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. White House Press Secretary Scott McCellen claimed that the strategy outlined is what the administration has been following since 2003, and said that the released document is simply an unclassified version of the same for the public to review.

This release follows growing public and congressional dissatisfaction over the continuing violence in Iraq, rising US and Iraqi death toll, revelations of corruption and misadministration in the reconstruction program and the administration's handling of the war. A day before the president's address, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in an E-mail to her supporters had said "Given years of assurances that the war was nearly over and that the insurgents were in their 'last throes,' this administration was either not being honest with the American people or did not know what was going on in Iraq."

"As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists. These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders," stated the President on Nov. 30 while speaking to Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

As was expected, Bush did not set a timeframe for U.S. troop withdrawal, which is in direct opposition to recent calls for such a timetable by congressional leaders. The administration and its supporters label such a timeframe as "artificial". In his speech, Bush characterized those calling for a withdrawal deadline as "sincere, but...sincerely wrong." and said "Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorists' tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder -- and invite new attacks on America."

Bush admitted that there had been "some setbacks in training Iraq’s security forces," and that their performance is still “uneven in some areas." Earlier, in a congressional briefing, General Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had said that so far only one Iraqi battalion out of 120 being trained was capable of mounting operations without support from U.S. forces. The strategy document released also stated that "it's not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy able to defeat its enemies three years after Saddam is finally removed from power," prompting questions about when the administration made such a determination.

In the White House press briefing Scott McClellan did not directly answer a question about which, if any of the short, medium and long term goals set out in the strategy has been achieved, saying that "I want to say we've made real progress on all three fronts of the strategy for victory." Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) echoed the same sentiment, saying " ... examining the results on the ground, it's clear that we continue to make progress on the political, security and economic fronts"

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass), felt the President was ignoring what his own generals are telling him.

"The large presence of American forces on the ground feeds the insurgency," stated Kerry.

Democratic politicians generally dismissed the speech as a repeat of old rhetoric.

Harry Reid (D-Nev), Senate minority leader, accused Bush of "recycling his tired rhetoric of 'stay the course'." According to Reid, Bush had "missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home."

Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Programme at the New America Foundation, said Bush's war aims failed to address the strains on U.S. armed forces imposed by Iraq. "It's a very expansive commitment and it blows by the structural questions," stated Clemons. He added that those problems could only be resolved by a withdrawal, changing the current rules limiting the frequency of combat tours for individual units, or by moving towards a draft. Clemons said Bush was trying to escape those problems by portraying Iraqi forces as more ready than they actually are.

Washington spends more than $6b a month to keep its forces in Iraq. More than 2,100 Americans and many more thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the March 2003 invasion.