President Bush on Thursday said that the surge of roughly 30,000 troops to Iraq that he initiated early last year is now over and has achieved significant gains, but stopped well short of declaring victory, instead stating that America “remain[s] a nation at war.”
The White House also announced significant changes in the hierarchy of the U.S. intelligence community, in an executive order that enhances the powers of the director of National Intelligence and further cements him as head of the community, a role which had been played by the head of the CIA.
Iraq, which has dominated Mr. Bush’s presidency since the U.S. invasion early in 2003 and damaged his credibility immensely domestically and internationally, now looks like it could possibly become, in the long run, a success and a bright spot in the president’s legacy.
All five brigades of surge troops returned home from Iraq in July, a month which saw violence drop to “its lowest level since the spring of 2004,” Mr. Bush said. Pentagon numbers indicated that the 11 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq was actually the lowest monthly toll of the entire war.
Mr. Bush also announced that starting Friday, U.S. troops deployed to Iraq will serve 12-month tours instead of extended 15-month tours.
The president said that Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will soon make recommendations on future troop levels, which he said will include “further reductions in our combat forces as conditions permit.”
Yet significant obstacles remain on Iraq, and numerous other legacy-building objectives sought this year by the Bush administration appear to be slipping from the president’s reach.
On Iraq, the administration continues what have become frustrating negotiations with the increasingly confident Iraqi government over an agreement to allow U.S. forces to remain in country beyond the end of 2008, when United Nations authority for the U.S. presence expires.
Mr. Bush said the U.S. remains at war because al Qaeda “remain dangerous, and are determined to strike our country and our allies again.”
In Afghanistan, the NATO-led force has suffered mounting casualties even while Iraq violence has declined.
And in other foreign policy matters, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks jumpstarted late last year by the Bush administration are in grave danger of being totally derailed by the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which he announced Wednesday.
In addition, the president faces a looming challenge on North Korea, which has made almost no progress towards showing that they mean to allow verification of their denuclearization efforts.
Mr. Bush in late June notified Congress of his intent to remove Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the 45-day notification period ends on Aug. 11, the day that the president leaves China after attending the Olympics.
The White House says that the end of the 45-day period is not a deadline, and that if North Korea does not make progress toward verification by that point they can still wait for movement from Pyongyang beyond that time.
“The window for doing this remains open,” said Dennis Wilder, senior director for asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Mr. Bush’s revision of a 1981 executive order on the intelligence community, according to a senior Bush administration official, “clarifies the authorities granted to the director of National Intelligence in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Law in areas where he thought clarifications were necessary to integrate the intelligence community.”
The order places the director of National Intelligence, a post currently filled by Adm. Mike McConnell, clearly at the top of the intelligence community hieararch, giving him authority over collecting and sharing information among different agencies, but also giving him significant power over who runs the 16 different spy agencies.
“The DNI will set goals for the conduct of the nation’s intelligence activities by, among other things, issuing guidelines governing collection, analysis, and intelligence sharing and formulating policies to guide our intelligence relationships with foreign countries,” said a White House fact sheet summarizing the order.
“The DNI also will participate more fully in decisions regarding the selection and, if necessary, the removal of senior intelligence officials.”