I just got off a conference call with White House spokesman Tony Snow and NSC Director for Iraq Brett McGurk. The 'occasion' was the receiving and veto of the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill.
Overall impressions: the public debate about Iraq now revolves around several questions. Will the surge work, and can the public be convinced that it's working (two different things)? Can the Iraqis make the political progress (on oil, elections and other issues) that U.S. support is supposed to be enabling? Will the political climate permit the president to keep U.S. troops in Iraq through the 2008 election--and would that be desirable if possible (and under what circumstances)?
All of the White House rhetoric is geared to build support for the surge among the American public, but as Snow pointed out in the call, the American people can't think that the only things American troops are doing in Iraq is "walking around and getting killed." They must believe that this is about more. The only thing that can convince them that there is more to the mission, is results from Iraq. That's where all the focus has to be. If sessions like this one with Snow build support to stay in Iraq longer and thus allow the Iraqis to build a nation, that's fine--but it's not the ultimate test. The ultimate test is what Iraq looks like.
Now on to the substance of the call.
I'll start off with simple housekeeping stuff: Snow indicated that the president will release a statement on the veto at 6:10 pm, and the veto message will be delivered to the Congress tomorrow. The House will try--and fail--to override the veto tomorrow morning.
With the insistence of the Democrats on the dogged pursuit of a funding bill that the President made clear he would veto months ago, everything up until now has been political theater. So just 86 days after the president initially submitted his emergency funding request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress will begin to work on the request tomorrow.
Snow indicated that the president will veto the legislation for the following reasons:
* The timetables for withdrawal handcuff the generals in conduct of the war.
* The legislation substitutes the opinions of people in Washington for the opinions and leadership of America's generals on the ground.
* It provides funding, but with handcuffs--preventing our military from pursuing victory.
* It contains unrelated domestic spending items.
* The debate over withdrawal damages U.S. credibility, and the reputation of the United States in both the region and the world.
Snow pointed out that the timetable is opposed by the Iraqi people, government, military, and law enforcement. It is opposed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Its supporters include Moqtada al Sadr, Iran, the Syrian government and Al Qaeda. Snow said that it is popular today to argue that the threat of American withdrawal will help create discipline in the Iraqi government, but that the Iraqi people are already spending significant 'blood and treasure' to try to create a stable country. Rather, the talk of withdrawal will tend to confirm Osama bin Laden's argument that the United States is a 'weak horse,' and that the Iraqis should look elsewhere for support. In this way it undermines those we want to help, and helps those we want to undermine.
Snow argued that it is important to recognize the consequences of victory and defeat in Iraq. Victory will show that democracy can succeed against terror, and that people can choose a democratic regime with a government of their choosing, even in the face of aggressive terrorism. Failure will lead to cataclysmic violence, regional destabilization, and a haven for terror networks. It is vital that we succeed.
McGurk reminded us that the Baker-Hamilton commission rejected timetables and the declassified National Intelligence Estimate said that the presence of coalition forces is essential. Without those forces, the Iraqi government would collapse and both Turkey and Iran would intervene.
In response to a question from Fausta about the impact of the lack of funding, Snow said that while funds have been shifted, the problem would become more dramatic after May 15. The last thing affected would be combat operations, but the impact would be felt.
When Erick from RedState asked why the White House has been unwilling to fight more aggressively, Snow pointed out that the White House has been saying for three months that this legislation would be vetoed, and that there is only so much the White House can do. He said that victory is essential for the long-term future of the US.
McQ of QandO asked for some indication of what the White House would be looking for in the next bill. But Snow demurred, saying that he did not want to try to negotiate ahead of time. The president would insist on a measure that did not tie the hands of the generals and did not undermine the Iraqi government. The real question he asserted, is what the Democrats would do--would they support the troops and a chance at victory?
Mark Finkelsten at Newsbusters offered a chance to slam George Tenet over his recent book, but Snow didn't rise to the bait. He noted that Tenet had a difficult job and had tried to do it well; that his famous promise of a 'slam dunk' merely represented the considered view of all the agencies that looked at the question of Iraqi WMD. He also pointed out something that few have commented on: that the book has nothing about the White House pressuring analysts to conclusions about WMD, or 'cooking' data. There were undoubtedly many on the left who would have liked to find that, but it's not there.
When asked by a Human Events writer about the report that the Iraqi parliament would take two months off this summer, Snow said that the U.S. government is communicating to the Iraqi regime the importance of making progress on key priorities--such as the oil law. He said that a message has been sent clearly that the patience of the American people is not unlimited.
When Hawkins of Right Wing News asked whether Harry Reid should resign for having said that the war is lost, Snow again demurred--saying that that was up to Reid's Democratic colleagues. He chose to point out, instead, that the main point is how out of sync Reid's comments are with those of the people who are reporting back from Iraq. In fact, re-enlistment rates are now higher he said, among those who have fought in combat than those who have not.
Robert Bluey asked what can be done to get the message out about the pork in this bill, and Snow said (among other things) that it's important just to have fun with it.