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Troop Levels a Crucial Decision for Bush Administration

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Bush administration is facing some difficult decisions on troop levels for the war in Iraq. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams has been following that story and joins us for some analysis.

Morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. A couple of perhaps contradictory statements here. General George Casey, the US commander, said troop levels could be reduced next spring, but President Bush said any talk of a specific date is just speculation. Is there a difference there?

WILLIAMS: There is, Steve. There are different responses to declining support for the war. Support for President Bush's handling of the war is at an all-time low. A recent poll shows only about 39 percent of Americans approve of the way that he's been handling the war effort. At the Pentagon, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's response to the declining support has been to suggest that we move away from calling our effort in Iraq a war. He says political and economic issues as well as the military effort is needed to claim victory in a worldwide struggle against terrorism.

And a few weeks ago, General Casey, as you mentioned, began talking about reducing troop levels this coming spring, but President Bush said last week the US will lower its troop commitment in Iraq only when Iraqi military forces are ready to take over and he's sticking with calling the effort a military war.

It's key to note here that given the declining public support, the president has been reluctant to increase US troop strength and overwhelm the continuing insurgency. He prefers to say the Iraqi military strength will increase soon and, in combination with the US forces there, be able to keep insurgent balance to a minimum. This month, a record number of National Guard and Reserves have been killed.

INSKEEP: So different people in the administration are talking about the war differently, presumably thinking about the war differently. Some are emphasizing a political solution, though, which is what's being attempted now in Baghdad.

WILLIAMS: Well, as you just heard from Phillip Reeves, today is the deadline for the new constitution. The US and its allies have been pushing the Iraqis to meet that deadline by putting off difficult issues, but political progress is facing large hurdles, as you just heard in the report.

This brings us back to the US troop levels issue, though. If elections are held in December, the Pentagon anticipates an increase in insurgent activity, and that's going to require that--more than the current 138,000 US troops on the ground. So if things go well, the US is looking actually at a larger deployment before they can realistically think about decreasing the American presence in Iraq.

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that the administration is lowering expectations for what it can accomplish in Iraq. No longer do they think that revenue from oil wells will cover the cost of reconstruction. No longer do they think that there will soon be a thriving democracy. No longer do they think they can completely secure the country against insurgent violence.

INSKEEP: Juan, before you go, I want to ask about Cindy Sheehan, this woman who's been camping outside President Bush's home in Crawford, Texas, demanding a meeting. She's the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Is she going to get that meeting?

WILLIAMS: Probably not, Steve. She already met once with the president this weekend. She appears in an ad calling him a liar. Let's hear a bit of that ad.

(Soundbite from ad)

Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN: Casey was so good and so honest. Why can't you be honest with us? You were wrong about the weapons of mass destruction. You were wrong about the link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. You lied to us, and because of your lies, my son died.

WILLIAMS: Steve, Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother, has become the face of the anti-war movement, a very political figure. Nonetheless, the president said last week he sympathizes with her and that she has a right to her opinion. He added that her call for an immediate pullout from Iraq is wrong and the president's aides question the value of another meeting with her since she says this war is all about oil, but she is a major PR problem for the White House. Even if she's allied with the president's political opponents, she raises questions about why the US is in Iraq. Is it worth more than the 1,800 Americans who've died there so far, and what's the exit strategy? These are questions the administration was having trouble with before Cindy Sheehan pitched her tent outside Crawford.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams in for Cokie Roberts this morning.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
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