In this behind-the-scenes look, CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry looks at what is at stake for the president as he makes a major speech on Iraq Thursday night.
President Bush talked about troop reductions, but he also spoke of a troop presence "beyond my presidency."
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's eighth prime-time address on Iraq since the invasion seems to have met his immediate political goal of buying himself more time to pursue his current strategy, despite being a speech full of contradictions.
The president said the surge of forces in Iraq is succeeding from a security standpoint, though not succeeding enough to forge the political reconciliation that was a primary goal of the increase of troops.
He rejected large U.S. troop pullouts sought by Democrats and some Republicans in his own party -- but for the first time embraced modest cuts that still only bring troop levels down to the pre-surge levels of 2006.
And even as the president alluded to further troop reductions down the road, he spoke about working with the Iraqi government on a U.S. troop presence "that extends beyond my presidency" -- a move that could play into Democratic charges that this is an open-ended commitment.
The verdict from moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine just moments after the speech suggests some in the president's own party feel that amid all of the hype about this speech being a turning point in the war, this is really just the status quo.
"While any redeployment is long overdue, I'm deeply troubled the president hasn't been answering the central question -- what are we buying time for, if there is no Iraqi plan for Iraqi national political reconciliation?"
Bush addressed these very concerns in his address. "Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late," he said. "They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al-Qaeda. It is never too late to advance freedom."
When outgoing White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked at Monday's White House briefing if the president's latest approach amounts to "kicking the can down the road" by buying six more months or so of time for the current strategy to continue, he said that was a "glib" characterization.
"The question now is, is the surge producing results?" Snow asked. "You saw a number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans ... saying that they were very impressed by especially the military progress they had seen and also the so-called 'bottom-up,' the grassroots change in attitude."
Snow is correct that even the president's critics have to acknowledge that some lawmakers in both parties came from August trips to Iraq saying they had seen some progress on the ground.
Secondly, there is no denying the president's political position has been strengthened slightly since the beginning of the summer, when a growing number of senior Republicans -- like Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio -- were practically screaming for a change in course.
While folks like Lugar and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, still expressed skepticism and anger over the president's approach this week, these Republican voices of opposition are not really growing in a major way and there's still no clear sign that they will start voting with Democrats on legislation forcing a dramatic policy shift.
And there's no evidence either that Democrats in Congress have gotten their act together to bring about a change in course, much to the chagrin of their liberal base.
So in the short-term, the president seems to be getting his way -- more time to run the war on his terms. Though in the long run there is more danger ahead for Bush, because the plan he outlined Thursday night will keep about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq until next summer, when the number might be reduced to roughly 130,000. The big caveat is that progress must continue.
That configuration carries great political risk for the Republican Party heading into the 2008 elections. More important than electoral considerations, it means a large number of men and women in the military will continue to be in harm's way, which is why the president had a tough sales job Thursday night.
"Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible," the president said on May 1. Now that very same president is essentially setting up a deadline of next summer to withdraw up to 30,000 troops.
Furthermore, the president is going to be seeking a political bounce for a plan to start bringing these 30,000 troops home. But Army officials have already said they need to pull out many of those troops by next summer because the military is so stretched right now.
Is this really a bold new initiative?
Democrats are already asking how the president can claim success when he is just bringing the U.S. footprint in Iraq down to where it was in December 2006.
"Moving us in 10 months to where we were 10 months ago is not progress," said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. "It is the very definition of status quo."
Then there's the fact that the president's stated goal of the surge was not just to increase security in Iraq, but also to improve stability enough that it would provide "breathing space" for political reconciliation in the Iraqi government.
The surge hasn't accomplished that. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his colleagues in parliament -- who took that long vacation -- have failed to meet most of the benchmarks Bush signed off on long ago.
In fact, officials tell CNN the White House will be sending a written progress report to Congress on Friday that will show the Iraqi government has met only a few of those benchmarks.
On Thursday night, the president said, "The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks -- and in my meetings with Iraqi leaders, I have made it clear that they must."
The only problem is the president gave them a very similar ultimatum back in May. "The Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice," he said in the Rose Garden back then.
Four months later, everyone is still waiting. Which once again begs the question: Is this now a new strategy that builds on success or is it just kicking the can down the road until the next "turning point" in the war? E-mail to a friend
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