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"My Answer Is No"

A conversation with President Bush.

6:30 AM, Apr 10, 2008 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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I SPENT ABOUT 40 minutes with President Bush in the Oval Office late yesterday afternoon, in a meeting whose purpose was to allow the president to preview the Iraq speech he's giving today.

We ended up spending more than half the time on other matters. The president recounted some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations at the recent NATO summit. He discussed his phone conversation yesterday with Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a previous conversation with Chinese president Hu Jintao about the Olympics, and earlier conversations with Arab leaders about Iran. As we were breaking up, the president also offered a few thoughts on the presidential race. The president was forthcoming---and impressive--in discussing these sensitive topics. Unfortunately, he--sometimes prodded by his attentive press secretary, Dana Perino--put these parts of the session off the record.

So you'll have to take my word for it: The president is an interesting man with whom to have an off-the-record conversation about foreign affairs and American politics.

Meanwhile, on the record, the president discussed Iraq. Here too, he was interesting and impressive--though there were, as you'd expect, no great surprises.

He began with the fact that the surge had worked: "There is progress. . . . We are better off now than we were prior to the surge. And we're headed toward a day when the Iraqis are going to be able to manage their own affairs from a security perspective. But we're not there yet."

The president maintained that the drawdown currently underway--from a peak of 20 brigades down to 15 brigades in July--was prudent: "David Petraeus is right, we can go down to 15." But then, the president emphasized, Petraeus "wants to wait and see. And I strongly support that. And therefore [I] won't commit beyond July."

So, the president said, at the heart of his speech today "are a couple of questions . . . two big questions that will be answered. . . . One is, are we good enough to take the 20 out to 15? The answer is yes. Will [we] . . . take out any more beyond that? And my answer is no. I'm not going to say that. I'm going to say that I agree with David, that we ought to take a look."
And, the president continued, it will be a look or an assessment, not a "pause." "'Pause' is the wrong word--because I'm going to explain why--you don't pause in the middle of a war; you continue to conduct war, you assess. And do I hope that we can continue 'return on success'? Yes, I do hope so. Do I guarantee it? No, I don't. . . . ."

The president also emphasized that getting to 15 brigades would allow for a rotation schedule for the active force of one year in, one year out. That, he said, would "begin to handle this issue of stress." The president explained that he sympathized with the strain on the troops and their families. But, he said, "the biggest stress would be defeat." And he asked his national security adviser Stephen Hadley for a copy of an-almost-final draft of his speech in order to read a couple of sentences from the text to make the point: "Our troops want to win in Iraq, and we can see that desire in the gains in recruiting and retention since the surge began. And the surest way to depress morale and weaken the force would be to lose in Iraq."

I mentioned to the president a conversation I'd had with a couple of brigade commanders recently returned from Iraq. This led the president in turn to a discussion (off the record) about his many conversations with soldiers and Marines, and their families. He commented on the private meeting he had held Tuesday with about a dozen Iraq and Afghanistan vets from the group Vets for Freedom, which he enjoyed. But he mentioned in particular Tuesday's Medal of Honor ceremony for Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, the Navy SEAL who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades in Ramadi in September 2006.

I told the president that I had choked up watching the ceremony on television. I'll violate the off-the-record rules in order to convey the tenor of the president's lengthy response. He explained how difficult it had been for him to keep his composure. This was especially the case, he said, when he was congratulating and comforting Petty Officer Mansoor's parents (this was evident on television). What wasn't evident on the telecast was that when the president was reading his remarks and looked up at the audience, he saw the Navy SEALs assembled in the East Room, to a man, weeping. That's when, the president said, he really had to steel himself to retain his composure. The president had a catch in his voice yesterday, 24 hours later, talking about the ceremony.