President Bush implicitly acknowledged yesterday that the war in Iraq will continue for several years, saying he could not see any way that U.S. forces could be withdrawn from the country while he is president.
In a taped interview with ABC's "This Week," moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Bush, "Can you imagine any circumstances where U.S. troops are going to leave Iraq before you leave the presidency?"
"No. I cannot," Mr. Bush said. "You mean every single troop out? No."
The president's interview aired in the wake of widespread reports last week, based on leaks from a U.S. task force headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, that the Bush administration is preparing for a "course correction" in Iraq in the coming months, with some of the options being the partition of Iraq and a military coup against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Administration spokesmen already had played down those reports, but Mr. Bush yesterday noted that Mr. al-Maliki has only been in office four months and expressed his support, while noting that it wouldn't last forever.
"I'm patient. I'm not patient forever. And I'm not patient with dawdling. But I recognize the degree of difficulty of the task, and therefore say to the American people: We won't cut and run."
In an appearance yesterday on "Fox News Sunday," Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said the Iraqi military needed to crack down harder on the private militias that have fought a low-grade civil war, with daily body counts in the dozens. Yesterday, the militias killed more than 40 Iraqis, with the bloodiest attacks coming against police recruits and holiday shoppers. The U.S. military also announced the deaths of a Marine and two soldiers, raising the October death toll to 81.
"It is their job, not the U.S. coalition forces' to subdue and get rid of these private militias," said Mr. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that a change in course may be necessary if the security situation does not improve soon and that "I think the administration is constantly revising and looking forward."
For his part, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News that criticism of Mr. al-Maliki is not the solution.
"We're talking about putting pressure on Maliki, but he doesn't have much clout," the Indiana Republican said. "Now, we probably need to think through how we, the United States, can give this prime minister more clout."
However, in his own "Fox News Sunday" appearance, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said a more drastic approach is necessary.
"The truth of the matter is, there's a need for radical change in policy. There's a need for a political solution in Iraq and a bipartisan solution here at home," the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee said. "Without those two things happening, there is no possibility, in my view, we succeed in Iraq."
Mr. Bush rejected the notion that he has been unwilling to adjust U.S. strategy in Iraq.
"Well, listen, we've never been 'Stay the course.' We have been -- 'We will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal.' But we're constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly."
In recent campaign appearances, Mr. Bush has described the Democrats as wanting to "wave the white flag of surrender" in the war on terror. When asked whether he could name any Democrats who have uttered such a phrase, Mr. Bush referenced Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, his opponent in the 2004 presidential election.
"I can name a Democrat who said there ought to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq, whether or not we've achieved a victory or not," Mr. Bush said.
"That's reprehensible. It's a lie," Mr. Kerry said during his own appearance on "This Week," when asked about Mr. Bush's surrender comments. "The administration has lied in the walkup to the war. They've lied in the conduct of the war. And they have made America less safe. And the president just misled America again in that interview."
When asked whether Iraqi insurgents are trying to affect the midterm elections, Mr. Bush said, "My gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we'd leave. And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear. ... They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause [the U.S.] government to withdraw."