A Teleconference With Tony Snow & Brett McGurk

I just got off of a teleconference with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Brett McGurk, the Director for Iraq, National Security Council. It was about the President’s speech tonight on Iraq. Tony started out with a little intro and then went into Q&A. Here are my notes (not quotes) from the teleconference.

The Intro

Tony: #1) It’s absolutely essential to succeed in Iraq. #2) What has been attempted in Iraq over the last 6 months hasn’t worked. So how do we move ahead?

#1) We have to focus on security before anything else. We can’t move forward on politics or economics with the violence in Anbar.

#2) We have to put Iraqis in the lead on security.

#3) In the short run, the Iraqis can’t do this on their own. They need our help.

We also have to take on the extremists and force the people on the fence to choose between the government or the terrorists.

All this will create room for political progress. Some benchmarks will include:

#1) Distributing oil money across the country.
#2) Baath Party reformation has to happen. It has been too severe, we have to loosen it up.
#3) Seats in the Parliament need to be adjusted because Sunnis are underrepresented.

We’re going to help them build their institutions a little more — the court systems, for example. We’re also going to try to bring in more help from the region, asking neighbors to contribute money. The President will mention Iran and the Syrians tonight. They are causing problems.

The President will commit 5 army brigades to Baghdad to help the Iraqis secure Baghdad. The city will be divided into 9 districts. There will be 2500 Iraqi troops and about 600 US troops in each district. They’re going to go door to door and stay 24/7. We’re not going to just clear and leave, we’re going to leave and hold. We will help with transportation, logistics, etc.

There will be an economic component, too. We have had success in Mosul and will work to do it in larger parts of Iraq — roughly 1.2 bil for State Department and military spending on development in Iraq.

The Question And Answer Session

(All answers are from Tony Snow unless otherwise noted)

Q: How much is Bush dependent on the Democrats to do this?

A: That’s a little fuzzy legally, but we hope we won’t have to worry about it.

Q: How much will we be going on offense?

A: Two problems with Baghdad last year? #1) Not enough resources. #2) Rules of Engagement were bad because Iraqi politicians could have operations stopped. That’s part of why militias took off. Politicians won’t be able to influence the operations any more per the Iraqi Prime Minister. We will probably have more than 50k Iraqis and 20k American forces in Baghdad. We’re also going to get the Iraqis better equipment.

McGurk A: The tribes have been fighting Al-Qaeda in Anbar and we want to consolidate the gains made there, so we will be sending in another 4k troops.

A: The tribal leaders in Anbar have had it with Al-Qaeda and they want our help fighting them. Al-Qaeda wanted to take over Anbar and they’re failing badly and will continue to fail.

Q: Will the President spend any time telling people about what we’ve accomplished in Iraq?

A: The President doesn’t want to get into numbers of terrorists killed because they’ll say we’re making up numbers, like Vietnam. But, Tikrit, Anbar, and Baghdad are where almost all the violence occurs. In most of Iraq, violence isn’t a big problem. But, the violence in Baghdad is problematic and undermining confidence across the country.

The President will let people know that if we fail in Iraq, it will give the terrorists a new staging ground and access to oil to buy weapons. It will also allow Iran to crow and intimidate people in the region. If we fail, people in the region will lose faith in us and would look to turn elsewhere for protection. That would hurt our security. A successful Iraq will put pressure on Iran and Syria.

Q: Tony, this is John Hawkins from Right Wing News. CNN is claiming that, “President Bush’s new Iraq plan will call for all Iraqi provinces to be under Iraqi control by November 2007.” Is that correct and even if that were to happen, would it be safe to assume that although we’d still need troops for logistics, air support, special forces, that sort of thing, a lot of the ground troops we have policing Iraq would likely no longer be needed?

A: That is true, and it may be possible that we won’t need as many troops then, but I don’t want to prejudge. The Iraqis wanted to takeover by November. That’s something they wanted to do. We think that’s an achievable goal. We are embedding down to the company level to work with the Iraqis to help them get it together.

Q: How do you plan to detail with the Democrats who plan to throw up hurdles to the President’s plans?

A: We want a full debate on this and we think it’s important that people realize 14 of 18 provinces aren’t in bad shape on the violence front. Also, we want people to see us moving on the development front. There is a 10 billion dollar development program and that’s from Iraqi funds. When the American people start to see that the Iraqis are taking the lead in Iraq and pumping more money into water, roads, schools, etc., they’ll see that they do want to make this work and the American people will respond to that.

McGurk A: Failure would be a disaster and every plan has risk. We looked at everything and we think this is the best way to handle it. For example, we considered leaving Baghdad and letting them fight it out. We decided that was a bad idea because it would strengthen the terrorists. Another option: set a timeline. To threaten to just leave on a timeline would cause people to hedge their bets and look to see who else could guarantee their security after we left.

Q: What about the Syrian and Iranian border? How will we deal with Syrian and Iranian instigators?

A: We’re going to treat it very seriously, but I am being deliberately vague on that. The importation of weapons from Iran is a problem. Iraq is a central front in the war on terror, but Iran is also a big threat.

Q: Why are you allowing the press to downplay all the good things we’re doing?

A: We’re not letting them. They just do it because they’re accustomed to bad news. It’s the unusual and the gory that attracts attention. It creates a real challenge for us. Thank God for blogs.

Final from Tony: All of the bloggers here are from blogs I have bookmarked. So, it’s great to have you here.

Summary: This was a detail-rich teleconference that was a 180 degree shift from the, “Stay the course, details to follow,” approach we’ve gotten from President Bush over the last few months and personally, I found it very encouraging — especially the part about the Iraqis being able to handle their own security by November. If they are actually able to do that, then we should be able to bring home a lot of our troops and American casualties would plunge as we helped the Iraqis with logistics, planning, air support, special forces, etc., instead of policing their country.

All in all, this is the sort of breakdown I’ve been hoping to hear from the Bush Administration for a while and I am hoping that the Iraqi takeover in November will help buck up support for the war. Time will tell and, of course, George Bush isn’t as eloquent as Tony Snow, so there’s no way to know if he will come across as well tonight. But, so far, so good.

Update #1: Here the audio from the teleconference. You can also see Mary Katharine Ham’s write up, which is good, here.

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