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Iraq's Shadow Looms Over Bush's Pentagon Trips

This holiday season, President Bush is visiting the Pentagon more frequently than shoppers hit the mall. In less than a week, he has made three trips, complete with TV crew, press pool, cops on motorcycles and Secret Service agents in SUVs. Each time Iraq cast its shadow over his appearance.

The first trip was last Tuesday. The President attended a classified satellite video conference with Iraq-based commanders and the U.S. ambassador to that country, Zalmay Khalilzad. The President is said to have asked a lot of questions as he searches for a new direction in a war that has come to define his presidency. "I thank these men who were our uniform for a very candid and fruitful discussion ... about how to secure this country," he told reporters afterward, "and how to win a war that we now find ourselves in."

Just three days later, on an unseasonably warm December day, Bush sat in the sunshine on the Pentagon grounds at a ceremony bidding farewell to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush gave Rumsfeld his walking papers the day after midterm elections delivered a powerful referendum on the Iraq war. At the Pentagon last week, Bush said of Rumsfeld's tenure: “The country is better off for it.”

The White House may have seen today’s event as something of a new beginning at the Pentagon. Vice President Cheney administered the ceremonial oath of office to a brand-new defense secretary, Robert Gates (who ran the CIA when the first President Bush was in office). "This has got to be an exciting time for Bob Gates," the President said at the event – an interesting choice of words.

He added that Gates “will help our country forge a new way forward in Iraq so that we can help the Iraqis achieve our shared goal of a unified democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.”

Even though the political lightning-rod named Rumsfeld is gone, any advice from Gates regarding a change in policy on Iraq comes relatively late in this period of reassessing the U.S. role in Iraq. Gates also comes on board at a time when public support for the war has fallen to just 31 percent, according to a new CNN poll.

In advance of the President's most recent ride to the Pentagon, the White House sought to downplay the criticism that continues to pour in.

Former Bush Administration Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the critics on Sunday. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, Powell reacted to reports that the President will send a “surge” of 20,000 extra troops into Iraq to try to quell the growing violence, saying that he doesn’t think the plan will work. Powell described the U.S. army, stretched to its limits after five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as being “about broken.”

Powell went on to say that Iraq is in a “civil war,” a term the President rejects. With blunt language, Powell said the mission "is grave and deteriorating." He stated: "We're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost."

The White House insisted that Powell's remarks should not necessarily be seen as critical. The administration has also refused to see the latest Iraq polls, showing very limited support for the President on the war, as a rejection of administration policy.

Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, “I think what you're trying to do is to create fights and friction where none exists.” In an exchange in the White House briefing room, Snow pointed out that "the way [Powell] put it was, he said, 'We haven't lost.'" According to Snow, Powell's points were: "number one, he says the situation is, in his opinion, recoverage. And the second is that he worried about some of the strains on the army, in particular."

Such an exchange demonstrates the degree to which public perceptions concern the White House. There's also concern that Bush's decision to delay a speech about the way forward in Iraq could be seen as a sign of conflict in the White House. That conclusion is simply "wrong," says Snow.

So now the speech will come sometime in January. But extending the wait for another month could serve to increase expectations -- and at the same time risk a further backlash if the public, already restless and unhappy about the war, doesn’t hear the answer it wants.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.