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Slate's Politics: Bush Battles Press on Iraq War

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, remarks today from British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the war in Iraq, and what he calls not a clash between civilizations, but a clash about civilization.

CHADWICK: First, the lead. President Bush on Iraq and other subjects. At a White House press conference earlier today, the president said the U.S. likely will continue in Iraq for several more years. And that ultimate decisions about withdrawal of U.S. Forces will be made by future presidents.

BRAND: In answering questions from reporters, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the military's work in Iraq is not easy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I understand how tough it is. Don't get me wrong. I mean, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. It's, I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night. But I believe, I believe the Iraqis, this is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart and they didn't.

CHADWICK: President Bush speaking to reporters at the White House today. John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

John, welcome back to the program.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Thanks for having me.

CHADWICK: You were at the press conference this morning. The president was optimistic about the war. Here, we'll hear another clip about what he had to say.

President BUSH: I'm confident, or I believe, I'm optimistic we'll succeed. If not, I'd pull our troops out. If I didn't believe we had a plan for victory, I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, the president has been using the words plan for victory, optimistic a lot in recent days, his speech yesterday. Do people in the White House believe he really is that optimistic? Do his aides tell you he really is that optimistic?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, yes. The two clips you've played put their situation perfectly. Which is to say he's still optimistic that in the long march of history, he's done the right thing, and this is the right thing for the Iraqis. But they are careful, and they want to show the public that he gets it. He knows how tough it is. He knows it's a slog, and he knows that it doesn't always look pretty, and that there are real sacrifices being made.

They say he has that kind of balance in private. They're trying to show the public he has that balance in public.

BRAND: And John, the president was asked about a statement by former Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi over the weekend, where Mr. Allawi said he thinks that civil war is already underway in Iraq. And here's how the president responded.

President BUSH: But the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war. A couple of indicators are that the army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united, and as General Casey pointed out, they did a, you know, arguably, a good job.

BRAND: John, is this just a semantic debate? What's this really about?

MR. DICKERSON: What this is really about is whether the president has a clear sense of what's really happening in Iraq. And the problem with having Allawi make a comment about civil war that's at odds with the administration position, is that Allawi, in a previous incarnation, when the administration backed him, was brought to Washington to make the case that things were better than they appeared. Now, he's on the opposite side. He's saying they're worse than the administration says. And so, it's a semantic argument, perhaps about the definition of civil war, but it gets at the heart of what American peoples, the American people are worried about, which is, does the president really have a clue about what's really happening on the ground in Iraq?

CHADWICK: That's really a hard question. The president says he thinks a lot of the violence in the Iraq is designed to make an impact with Americans and others outside Iraq. This is, these are acts taken to change the public dialogue. Here's the president on this subject.

President BUSH: And there is bad news. You brought it up. You said, how do I react to a bombing that took place yesterday? That's precisely what the enemy understands is possible to do. And I'm not suggesting you shouldn't talk about it. I, certainly not being, you know, please don't take that as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy's capability to affect the debate. And they know that.

CHADWICK: So, what he's saying, John, is the media, that is you and I, are being manipulated by the insurgents?

MR. DICKERSON: That's in part what he's saying. Although as you can see, he's very careful to, to not make it look like he's criticizing the media. What he's trying to do, is, he mentioned it there, talk about realistic assessments. And you could hear the strain in his voice, because he's trying to get across the idea that he, that he thinks he gets it. And he knows what the terrorists are trying to do. He understands what's happening on the ground, and he's trying, in every way possible, including the tone of his voice, to show people that he's not, that he does have a clue. That he understands in the very, very different ways that different players are trying to play their roles in this ongoing conflict.

BRAND: John, many people have suggested that he ought to shake up his administration at this point. And there were some questions about that, specifically with regards to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Did we learn anything?

MR. DICKERSON: We learned maybe a little something in a brief in exchange with a reporter, he said, well, I'm not going to announce it here--which suggests perhaps he has something to announce. But he, he also made very strong statements about how he supports Secretary Rumsfeld, and how he supports his staff.

CHADWICK: So, this press conference comes on just after, really, the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Growing doubts in many polls, growing doubts in the public about the wisdom about the Iraq War. The president's approval rating quite low compared to past ratings. Why this press conference now, John?

MR. DICKERSON: It's an ability for the president to kind of break the fever. Things haven't been going well. The press conference allows him an opportunity to talk about, sort of give his talking points, explain things from his point of view. And he knows we'll cover it, because the press loves anything that they play a role in. So, he knows he's going to get covered, and he hopes that he'll be able to get his point of view across.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate at the White House press conference earlier today. John, thank you again.

MR. DICKERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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