Press Gaggle by Gordon Johndroe
Crawford Filing Center
2:24 P.M. CDT
MR. JOHNDROE: Good afternoon. I'd like to open with a statement about the National Intelligence Estimate that was released by the DNI's office today. The President was briefed on the classified version on Monday morning.
The National Intelligence Estimate's updated judgments show that our strategy has improved the security environment in Iraq, but that we still face very tough challenges ahead. While the February NIE concluded that conditions in Iraq were worsening, today's key judgments clearly show that the military's counterinsurgency strategy, fully operational since mid-summer, has begun to slow the rapidly increasing violence and patterns of that violence we have been seeing in Iraq. This change is a necessary precondition to the stability and increased political reconciliation that we all seek.
The administration continues to support the efforts of Prime Minister Maliki, the presidency council, and Iraqi political leaders representing Sunni, Shia, and Kurds as they meet in Baghdad now to reach agreement on how they will work together for a more stable and secure Iraq.
The judgments in the NIE confirm that Iraq's security forces are improving their performance and that bottom-up political engagement and security initiatives have made a difference and offer the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months. The NIE does conclude that the Iraqi security forces have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the coalition on a sustained basis in multiple locations, and that the ISF remain reliant on the coalition for important aspects of logistics and combat support.
This is all accurate and not unexpected, given where ISF is in its development. This suggests, of course, that there's more work to be done, but that this effort is headed in the right direction.
The intelligence community also concluded that al Qaeda in Iraq remains resilient. The NIE states that, "coalition forces, working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements and some Sunni insurgents have reduced al Qaeda in Iraq's capabilities, restricted its freedom of movement, and denied its grassroots support in some areas. However, AQI retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks." We have changed al Qaeda's trajectory in a short period of time, and we must now sustain the momentum we have already achieved against them.
Today's key judgments also confirm that Iran and Syria are still supporting and arming militant groups inside Iraq. The NIE states, and I quote, "Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants, particular the JAM." Most troublesome, the use of EFPs supplied by Iran has risen dramatically, and it is taking an increasing toll on our troops. While Syria has taken some action, it has done so because of the threat to its own stability, and has begun to support non-al Qaeda in Iraq groups to increase its influence inside Iraq. One element of the administration's strategy is to support Iraqi efforts to convince its neighbors to be more helpful, and also to mobilize the international community to better support security in Iraq and the region.
The full National Intelligence Estimate will inform the recommendations to be made by President Bush, as well as the recommendations to be made by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker when they return to Washington in September to testify before Congress and make the report to the American people. And we look forward to hearing from them.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes.
Q: Gordon, can you react to -- despite the improvements you mentioned in the NIE about security, Republican Senator John Warner just announced in Washington that he wants the President, on September 15th, to announce that he's ready to come up with a timetable for withdrawal; and then on September 15th the President should initiate, in his words, "the first steps to withdraw U.S. troops" -- even if it's just 5,000 U.S. troops, something small, but that on September 15th, the President needs to announce that.
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I think that we appreciate Senator Warner's comments. He's a distinguished senator who has just recently returned from Iraq. But there is a clear process that has been laid out -- President Bush has talked about it numerous times -- and that is, we are to hear from the commanders on the ground and the Ambassador -- we'll hear from Ambassador Crocker, we will hear from General Petraeus. They will make their recommendations; they will testify in front of Congress. And then the President will make a report to Congress. That is laid out in the legislation. It also is the appropriate course of action to see where things stand by hearing from our U.S. representatives on the ground, where things stand on the security front and where things stand on the political front.
So I appreciate the Senator's comments. But we will wait until Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus return from Baghdad and make their report.
Q: Senator Warner just came back from Iraq, as you know, with Senator Levin, met with a lot of these military and civilian officials and he came up with this assessment. He's been in the Senate about 30 years, Republican, as well. Will the President consider at least a timetable for withdrawal as he moves forward to September 15th?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, I think it's inappropriate for me to say from here right now what the President will or will not consider. I know the President has stated many times that he wants to hear from General Petraeus and he wants to hear from Ambassador Crocker, hear what they have to say about the conditions on the ground, and make decisions based on their recommendations, input from the intelligence community like the NIE. We'll hear from Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice, Admiral Fallon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So the best thing to do now is wait for all of these people to report in, listen to what members of Congress like Senator Warner say, and then -- that will be the time, in September, to hear these reports and then make decisions about the way ahead.
Q: Are you leaving the door open to a timetable? The President has recently said a timetable would be a disastrous course of action.
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes, and I don't think that the President feels any differently about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal. I just think it's important that we wait right now to hear from the commanders on the ground about the way ahead.
Q: Gordon, you talked a good bit about security elements of the report, but it also says that political leaders in Iraq are unable to govern effectively, and that going forward the Iraqi government is going to continue to struggle to reconcile its factions. So are you saying that the White House reads this document and is contending on the political front that things are going in the right direction?
MR. JOHNDROE: No, I want to be very clear, we know that there are significant challenges ahead, especially in the political area. I would say that the strategy laid out by the President on January 10th was a strategy that provided for security first, so that there would be space for political reconciliation. The surge did not get fully operational until mid-summer. It is not surprising -- it is frustrating, but it's not surprising that the political reconciliation is lagging behind the security improvements. I think that is the way the strategy was laid out.
But no question about it, we want the Iraqi government to come together and make some decisions about how they're going to work together for a more prosperous and secure Iraq. And right now Prime Minister Maliki, the presidency council and leaders representing all the different factions -- they've been meeting in Baghdad; I expect they will continue to meet in Baghdad. And we urge them to work together on the way ahead.
Q: Can I follow on that, please?
MR. JOHNDROE: One follow-up, yes.
Q: On Maliki, the President said yesterday that he supports him. But I'm wondering what that support is based upon. Is it merely that the Prime Minister is the chosen representative and that ought to be respected, or is there some specific evidence that you can point to to what the President is thinking when he says he supports Maliki?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think that the Iraqi parliament and the government of Prime Minister Maliki has taken some action over the last few months. We've talked about nearly 60 laws. We've talked about oil revenues being distributed to certain provinces, even though there isn't an oil-sharing law done yet. And the NIE even states today that there has been progress on economics, as well as governance, but that it is certainly lagging behind.
So, look, I think this is a government that is learning -- frankly, learning how to govern. And, no, it is not moving nearly as fast as everyone in Washington, D.C. would like it to move, and therefore we encourage them to continue making efforts to expand the ability of the central government to function around the country.
Q: How can the Maliki government survive if, as the NIE suggests, he faces increasing vulnerability? His government, "will become precarious over the next six to 12 months," and sectional violence will continue and possibly increase. And given his vulnerability, does the White House insist on a central government or -- regardless of who is in charge -- or would it support a divided nation or a loose federation in Iraq?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I think that Prime Minister Maliki and leaders of a variety of political parties and factions in Iraq have been working together to reach some agreements. And we need to continue to urge them to work together. The Iraqis have a process for dealing with their government, because it's a democracy. This government was voted in by the people of Iraq, and if the people of Iraq have concerns about what their government is doing, the people of Iraq will take care of it.
But right now we've seen some steps by Prime Minister Maliki and that government to do a better job and expand the role of the central government, do a better -- do a little bit better job in getting services out to its people. But they clearly have a lot more work to do. But we currently -- I don't want to say we currently -- but we're standing behind the Prime Minister and the presidency council because they are trying right now in Baghdad to move forward.
Q: Can I just follow up?
MR. JOHNDROE: Sure.
Q: On the issue of central government versus divided, I mean, what if someone like Sadr becomes the Prime Minister? Would the White House then support a different form of government --
MR. JOHNDROE: You know what, I think the best thing for me to do is not ever answer a hypothetical question, like what if somebody else -- what is somebody X becomes prime minister? I think the Iraqis -- many Iraqis have made clear that they do not want a divided country. They have, I think, indicated that they want the federalist structure that is what they have basically now, where you have a central government, but you also have provinces with various responsibilities. And so -- but those decisions are ultimately up to the Iraqis.
Q: Gordon, would you have us write that the President is encouraged or discouraged by this report, or both?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think that the President looked at the report as one that wasn't entirely surprising in the judgments that it made. These are many things that he has been talking about that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, Secretary Gates and Rice have been talking about over the last few months. There are encouraging signs of security gains, primarily as a result of U.S. forces being on the ground, and improved capabilities of Iraqi security forces. There are many challenges. So I think that's how the President look at the report.
Q: Gordon, can I ask -- a Republican lobbying firm, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, has now signed on as a client to former Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi, and they're promoting him as a potential alternative to Maliki. They're starting to lobby members of Congress and their staff, saying Maliki is basically not the answer. Is the White House concerned about allies, Republican lobbyists, allies of the White House lobbying against Maliki, essentially? And is the White House at all involved in this -- publicly saying you support Maliki -- privately, are you giving any sort of a wink and nod to Allawi that he could be an alternative?
MR. JOHNDROE: To your second part, no. Decisions about the Iraqi government are going to be made by the Iraqis in Iraq. This is an elected government right now. If former Prime Minister Allawi is interested in become Prime Minister again, that would be an issue that he would need to take up with the Iraqi people, probably best taken up in Baghdad rather than Washington, D.C. So I just --
Q: But if the President keeps saying that Maliki is the answer and he thinks he's got the best chance of political reconciliation, why would Republican lobbyists want to undermine what the President is saying publicly?
MR. JOHNDROE: Maybe it's a really good contract.
Q: I've got two for you, one on Iraq, one not. The one on Iraq is that Director of National Intelligence McConnell said in an interview recently that there were -- this is in the context of a discussion of terrorists trying to cross the U.S. border -- there were "a significant number of Iraqis who came across last year, smuggled across illegally" -- across the Southwestern border of the United States. Can you say whether these were just refugees, whether they were terrorists, whether they were national security threats, whether they were al Qaeda in Iraq?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not familiar with that, so I would have to check on that and get back to you.
Q: And the other one is on Sudan. Sudan has expelled the European Commission envoy and the Canadian charge d'affair for interfering in its affairs. Do you have a reaction to that?
MR. JOHNDROE: I have not seen specifically why the Sudanese government has expelled the envoys, deemed them persona non grata, so I can't comment specifically on that. The Sudanese have a history of doing this sort of thing to try and thwart the will of the international community. And I hope that that would not be the case today with these expulsions, and hope that they are still planning on complying with their obligations to the U.N. Security Council.
Q: Did you say, thwart the will of international community?
MR. JOHNDROE: Thwart, thwart.
Q: Any reaction on the -- the Pakistan supreme court has allowed former Prime Minister Sharif to come back to the country. Is there any concern of a power struggle erupting in Pakistan at a time that the U.S. has made it clear that it needs Pakistan's help in the region?
MR. JOHNDROE: That is an internal matter for the Pakistanis to deal with as far as the way ahead. The United States would like to see free and fair elections in Pakistan. So we would urge all of the various parties and political figures to work together.
Q: The President, yesterday, drew that Vietnam analogy, that a bloodbath had occurred after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, which sounds to me like it's applicable only if you assume that we would have ultimately won that war. Was he trying to say that we should have continued sacrificing not just regular military troops, but draftees, beyond that point in order to erect a Vietnamese government that had less support than Maliki's government has now? And if so, for how long?
MR. JOHNDROE: Historical interpretations abound today, don't they? The President clearly stated it was not his intention to relitigate the debate surrounding the Vietnam War. I think the purpose of his comments were to make clear that discussions today about the work that we are doing in Iraq echo the criticisms of past times, echo the criticisms of the situation with Japan, Korea and Vietnam. And the point the President was making is that our success in Asia provides an historical context that should give us confidence in our ability to succeed in today's struggle in Iraq -- as well as the struggle against violent extremism, against terrorists around the world.
Q: Is there any White House connection to this group, Freedom's Watch, that is running ads against Republicans around the country?
MR. JOHNDROE: No. It's my understanding that's a newly created, independent organization and there is no connection.
Q: Does the White House support their efforts?
MR. JOHNDROE: I have not looked into specifically all that they are involved in. So if they are involved in an effort that believes that we can succeed in Iraq, and that if we don't succeed in Iraq it would be a -- damage to the national security of the United States, then I would think that's something that we agree with.
Okay, thank you all.
END 2:41 P.M. CDT
George W. Bush, Press Gaggle by Gordon Johndroe Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/276287