Just one day after Bush announced “a limited drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that “it might be possible to reduce U.S. forces there further over the course of next year, down to approximately 100,000 troops by the end of 2008.” Gates’s comments came in the wake of the White House report “concluding that the Iraqi government has not made satisfactory progress on several political and security benchmarks.”
In a congressionally mandated assessment, the administration found only modest improvements since an interim report in July.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Gates said he hopes that in March, Petraeus “will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year.” Asked if such reductions would mean that U.S. troops would number about 100,000 by the end of 2008, Gates replied: “That would be the math.”
Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell later emphasized that the defense secretary’s comments were his “personal views” and did not represent administration policy or a formal military plan. But Gates’s statements, delivered in his first Washington news conference in two months, underscored the continuing battle inside the administration and on Capitol Hill over the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Leading Democrats including John Kerry said that “Bush’s proposed cuts do not go far enough in reshaping the U.S. mission.” And today Senate Democrats said “one of their proposals aimed at shifting the president’s strategy is finally close to winning enough Republican support for a real chance at being approved.”
Kerry issued the following statement, in response to the Benchmark Status Report on Iraq that President Bush sent to Congress this morning:
“It’s telling that the only report that shows progress in Iraq comes from the same Administration that predicted we’d be greeted as liberators and proclaimed ‘mission accomplished.’ This Administration is in deep denial. Their misguided account is out of touch with every recent independent Iraq assessment, from General Jones to the GAO report, which found that the Iraqis met only one of eight benchmarks on political reconciliation. The White House needs to stop spinning and start changing course now.”
Joe Biden chimed in saying, “All it does is point out the failure. You don’t even need to go to the benchmarks to realize what an abject failure this policy has been.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released the following statement today on the latest White House benchmark report:
“As hard as they may have tried to spin it, today’s assessment by the White House on the political situation in Iraq once again shows that the President’s flawed escalation policy is not working. It certainly does not justify keeping 130,000 soldiers mired in an open ended civil war as the President has chosen to do. Virtually every independent assessment on Iraq thus far has shown that the Iraqi government has failed to meet many of the political benchmarks that they have set; including the recent GAO report which stated that they have not met 15 out of 18 benchmarks. This is unacceptable.
The White House must drop its stay-the-course policy committing American troops to an open-ended civil war. It is time to change the mission in Iraq to protect our troops and make America safer. Democrats will continue to work to do so and hope that Republicans who had previously called for a change of course in September join us.”