David Sanger of the NYTimes put the White House on the defensive Monday with his account of behind-the-scenes discussions to announce plans for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, leading Tony Snow to reject the report Monday morning, saying "There is no debate right now on withdrawing forces right now from Iraq."
President Bush is supposed to give an interim assessment of the Iraqi government's progress to Congress this week, which wouldn't seem an appealing prospect for a leader facing an increasing number of defections from within his own party.
Snow's carefully worded denial betrays the most likely truth: The White House is right now debating the plan to withdraw troops in the future.
Even Bill Kristol confirmed through his sources that "there are real discussions going on at the White House, with advocates of what is being called 'The Grand Bargain' pushing hard for the president to move soon to announce plans to pull back in Iraq."
Kristol's manner of framing of the Iraq debate perfectly reflects the dilemma the President faces in trying to not alienate the core of his ideological supporters, "This week will not only be a week of (mostly silly) debate on the Hill; it will also be an important moment of truth for the president, who will have to decide whether to give Gen. Petraeus and the soldiers a chance, or to accept the counsel of some of his advisers and begin to throw in the towel on Iraq."
But if the President were to do as Kristol advises and "hold firm," he would risk driving away increasing numbers of his own party. The White House has faced political embarrassment as a number of senior Republicans have recently spoken out against the current Iraq strategy, and the DC rumor mill is buzzing that even John McCain, fresh back from another trip to the warzone, might make a turn for the critical--possibly in a campaign speech scheduled Friday in New Hampshire.
The White House press corps launched into Tony Snow during Monday afternoon's briefing, asking first if his earlier comment indicated the president was debating a plan to gradually withdraw troops in the future.
Rather than denying, this time Snow responded, "What's interesting is there seems to be a failure to recognize that the President has talked for quite a while about trying to have a surge so that we can bring forces home."
The press secretary then launched into a series of presidential quotes from the past six months that highlight Bush's hopes for a return of US troops, concluding with one from just last week:
"We all long for the day when there are far fewer American servicemen and women in Iraq, that a time will come when Iraq has a stable, self-sustaining government that is an ally against these extremists and killers. That time will come when the Iraqi people will not need the help of 159,000 American troops in their country. Yet withdrawing our troops prematurely based on politics, not on the advice and recommendation of our military commanders, would not be in our national interest. It would hand the enemy a victory and put America's security at risk, and that's something we're not going to do."
Clearly Snow is laying the intellectual groundwork to argue that whatever new policy direction is in the works, it has complete consistency with earlier goals.
When again pressed by a journalist on whether or not the New York Times accurately reported the White House was quietly discussing plans for a gradual withdrawal, Snow replied with some visible frustration, "No. No, there's no -- again, ultimately, the President wants to withdraw troops based on the facts on the ground, not on the matter of politics."
Bush could never acknowledge changing course as result of political pressure, most particularly because that pressure results from an awareness that things are not going quite as planned in Iraq. But Snow's references to the forthcoming report to Congress changing minds like Sen. Richard Lugar leads one to wonder what 'facts on the ground' the assessment might highlight.