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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 14, 2006

Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room

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12:45 P.M. EST

MR. SNOW: All right, welcome. Let me run through the President's schedule for today. Normal briefings. He had a meeting with the President of Benin a while ago; also remarks at the White House Summit on Malaria. It's an important program, and just a couple of points about it.

In June of 2005, the President announced the five-year $1.2 billion program. It challenges the private sector to join the U.S. government in combating malaria in 15 of the hardest hit African countries, including Benin. In one year, the President's Malaria Initiative has provided lifesaving prevention and treatment to approximately 6 million Africans in three countries. PMI, as they call it, will ramp up to four additional countries, including Benin, next year.

To give you an example of the kind of results, this is something that is not necessarily cost-intensive. Sometimes a fairly modest investment can yield a real saving in lives. There was a village in Zanzibar, in Tanzania, where malaria-related deaths dropped from 451 to 8 in the span of one year. At the first ever White House Summit on Malaria, the President announced the initiative is going to target eight additional countries. And the President and Mrs. Bush will continue to raise awareness about how communities, corporations and the government can work together to reach the goal of cutting malaria-related deaths by 50 percent in 15 targeted countries in Africa within five years.

Oh, yes, one other thing. The President and Mrs. Bush will host a holiday reception this evening on the State Floor.

Questions.

Q I'm wondering what the latest White House feeling is about the situation with Senator Johnson.

MR. SNOW: Our prayers are with Senator Johnson. Look, he's a great guy and it's one of these things where everybody is concerned. And our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, his staff, his colleagues.

Q Tony, General Schoomaker is saying, and has said again today, that the army needs to be increased in size, particularly if there's going to be a surge to Baghdad, but anyway, it needs to be bigger. Is the President considering this? Because if he were in the kind of back-and-forth and maneuvering that would be required to do so, it would seem to explain this delayed announcement, and it seems to fit in with the explanation you gave in terms of going back and really gaming things out and getting more information.

MR. SNOW: Well, don't look at that as the only data point that led the President to say he needed more. But it is clear that part of the discussions yesterday at the Pentagon were about manpower requirements, readiness requirements, what service chiefs thought were their needs. And obviously those are things that are going to be discussed not only in the context of the war in Iraq but also budgeting issues and getting ready for next year. So certainly those are concerns, and the President is listening to his service chiefs and he's interested in hearing what they have to say.

Q So is that a request that he is taking seriously --

MR. SNOW: Well, again, rather than -- he takes seriously any of the requests from the service branch chiefs. And the Pentagon will certainly have its input as people get ready, not merely on the issue of Iraq or Afghanistan, but also budgeting issues.

Q Let me just go in a different direction, really quickly. This effort to find a broader moderate political coalition in Iraq, how committed is the President to that? What if -- I understand the goal of it is not to sideline Maliki in any way. The goal is, as you've said, quite the opposite.

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q But what if it ends up going in that direction, weakening them or even starting to lead the --

MR. SNOW: Our interest -- we support the government of Prime Minister Maliki. And you're playing a what-if that asks me think about imponderables that I'm not willing to address, nor do I think it's appropriate to address. The important thing to understand is that Iraq has a real challenge. As it develops the capacity to defend, sustain and govern itself, the government is going to have to have the ability politically to draw people together, again, to talk about the hydrocarbon law or de-Baathification laws, or even revisions to the election laws. All of those are going to be important pieces.

In addition, you're going to have to build a coalition that really does unite all of the major groups within Iraq so that there is a sense of national unity and everybody is pulling together.

So those are clear challenges, and the one thing that we're gratified at seeing is that serious leaders from all of the different sectors of Iraqi society share the same goal. So I think -- we support Prime Minister Maliki in his efforts. We've been impressed by the fact that he is not only pushing forward on a number of reforms, but he understands the importance of going after those who are trying to derail the government by acts of violence that terrorize people in various parts of the country, and obviously in that area around Baghdad.

Q You say it's inappropriate to say "what if." But the administration has to game that out and try to figure out where it's going to go.

MR. SNOW: Well, I understand that, but as you understand also, that when we're gaming out, we don't talk about all internal deliberations. And it's important that -- it's important that the Prime Minister and the government understand that we support them.

Q So you would stick with that effort, no matter what? No matter where it would go?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, you're getting into what-ifs, and it's inappropriate to go there.

Q Has he communicated to the administration that adding 30,000, 40,000 more troops would be unacceptable to the Iraqi government?

MR. SNOW: Again, I'm not going to get into communications between the Iraqi government and the United States. Let me put it this way: When it comes to ongoing operations in Iraq, they are all done in consultation with the government of Iraq. It's a sovereign government, and the United States is not going to take an action that is not going to have the full support of the government.

Q So 20,000 troops might be acceptable in some sort of temporary --

MR. SNOW: Again, I'm just giving you the general guideline.

David.

Q From a security point of view, does the President believe that it is the primary role of the U.S. military to be responsible for reducing the sectarian violence? And if that's the case, or if it's not the case, how does that inform his decision about what the U.S. troop posture should be -- heavier on combat than on training, et cetera?

MR. SNOW: Okay, before I get to that, I want to address something else, because you and I had a conversation last week that got a whole lot of play in a lot of places where I used the term "partisan" in describing one of your questions. And I've thought a lot about that, and I was wrong. So I want to apologize and tell you I'm sorry for it. And the reason I do that is not only because it's the right thing to do, because I want people in this room and also people who watch these to understand that the relations in this room are professional and collegial. And if I expect you to do right by us, you have every right to expect that I'll do right by you.

So, in any event, I just want to say I'm sorry for that.

Now, let's -- on the issue, because I know that this plays off some of the stories today -- when it comes to what U.S. force strategies or postures are going to be, again, I'd leave that to the President to announce when he describes the way forward. But let me, again -- and I want to discourage people from taking too much, because there are going to be a lot of -- a lot of people are going to talk about a lot of options, and many people are working on investigating options, and a lot will say, ah-hah, I'm working on this, with the clear thought that that is the President's view of the way forward; some are going to be right, and some won't. But the President has not made up his mind.

It is important to understand that a vital part of having an Iraq that can sustain, govern, and defend itself is an end to sectarian violence, and also clear efforts to force insurgent groups, militias, and criminal bands to make a clear choice -- they have to face a choice: Either join civil society, or be shut down.

So you find out the most effective way to do that. And again, I'm not going to prejudge because that's for the President to announce and not for me to announce.

Q Can you say whether he believes that it is the primary security role of the U.S. military to be responsible for reducing that sectarian violence?

MR. SNOW: Again, I think -- I don't want to get -- I think the goal of reducing sectarian violence is absolutely vital. Whether I -- it would be inappropriate for me to assign that, to say that that is the primary goal. It is clearly a shared goal by the government of the United States and also by the government of Prime Minister Maliki.

Q Tony, isn't sectarian violence at least a problem --

MR. SNOW: Well, there are a number of problems. Sectarian violence clearly is a problem. As I mentioned, you also --

Q -- the biggest one? I mean, I know there are a number of problems. But I believe your Commander-in-Chief said that's the biggest problem that you face right now.

MR. SNOW: I think it is. But you also have, for instance, al Qaeda has clearly been active in Anbar Province. You still have al Qaeda activities that play an interesting role -- they have been designed to foment sectarian violence, but at the same time, it's another form of violence that's designed to destabilize the government.

You simply -- in a constantly shifting battlefield situation, you're going to have some threats rise and some fall over time. I will defer to commanders in their characterization of what the primary problems are.

Q Let me follow up on David's question, then, I think -- and that is this is the number one problem, according to your commanders -- sectarian violence. So does the President want -- does the President feel that's a main mission of the U.S. troops now, to --

MR. SNOW: Well, as I said, I understand that, but to answer that then gets people on the train of, does this mean you're going to plus up, you're going to plus down, you're going to move in, you're going to move out --

Q I don't mean plus in, plus down.

MR. SNOW: -- and I'm not going to get into any of these --

Q Is it a job of U.S. troops to quell that sectarian violence? Or just turn all that over to Iraq?

MR. SNOW: No. Again -- and that's why -- those are two theories -- that's a theory that's being floated and I'm simply not going to respond, for the reason that I'm not going to make a -- I'm going to let the President announce what he considers the proper way forward.

Again, let me stress, it's absolutely vital to go after sectarian violence, and it is something where U.S. forces clearly are going to be involved, as well as Iraqi forces. In fact, they are right now, in Baghdad and elsewhere. So the business of handling sectarian violence also is going to be something that we deal with in concert with going after al Qaeda, trying to deal with security throughout the country, and at the same time, training up Iraqi forces so that they become capable, ultimately, of assuming primary and eventually exclusive control of security operations.

Q One more. Could you tell us what happens now, from the time before the President gives his speech -- because the other day you said that most of the decisions, I think you said, were close to being made, that they were just ironing out a few things. So what is the President going to be doing from now until he announces the strategy?

MR. SNOW: He'll be -- there will be continuous consultation not only with -- through the National Security Council, but with Pentagon commanders; no doubt that there will be continued consultation with the government of Iraq. There may be other conversations with leaders in the region. When you talk about a way forward, it's tempting to think of this as purely a military exercise, and that's the part that we focus on most here, but it's a lot more. And the combatant commanders have made this point -- you have a lot of U.S. civilian personnel on the ground working on everything from putting together a system of justice, to doing what they can to rebuild the infrastructure, to education systems and all that. You have diplomats who are working on making sure that you get full cooperation and help from allies. And you want to make sure that all of these efforts do not conflict with one another so that they work together fairly smoothly.

As the President looks at options presented to him, he considers not only the stated goal and how that might work, but how does it interact with other things that are going on so that you do have a way forward that is going to mesh American and allied activities, whether they be British military or coalition military or the Iraqi government. So it's a highly complex undertaking. And it's one where as questions arise, he's going to call upon people to give him further detail about things that he wants to know about.

Q So it's very much just detail things at this point? He has follow-up questions, or he knows what he's going to do, but --

MR. SNOW: The President -- no, there's --

Q Can you just give us a better sort of --

MR. SNOW: Unfortunately I can't. This is one of those where I'm forced to try to give impressionistic answers. The President has not made final decisions about the way forward, and so people are examining a lot of different options. And they're presenting them to him.

Q Have you thought any more about this visit to Damascus by Senator Nelson? Is it possible he might have created an opening?

MR. SNOW: I don't think so. A couple of points really to make about it. We described this as not helpful yesterday and not appropriate. Senator Nelson made a trip a couple of years ago to Syria, and I think that one thing that he may have learned at that time, he had been led to believe that the Syrians were going to negotiate without precondition with the Israelis and resume talks that had begun in 2000, and almost the moment he said that, the government of Syria was saying, no, that's not true.

The point is that even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region. The Syrians have been adventurous and meddlesome in Iraq, and in Lebanon, and working against the causes of democracy in both of those countries.

And we think it's absolutely vital that the democracies succeed in both places. And therefore, the Syrians should have absolutely no doubt that the position of the United States government is the same as it has been, which is they know what they need to do. They need to stop harboring terrorists. They need to stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. They need to stop serving as headquarters for terrorist organizations. And they need to demonstrate goodwill.

A lot of times a member of Congress may think, well, I'm going to go there, and I'm going to tell them. I'm going to tell them exactly the same thing. I'm going to take a tough line. You can take a tough line all you want, but the Syrians have already won a PR victory. And so it's important to realize that in this case, it is not that there is a want of communication. We do have diplomatic relations with the Syrians. And they do know what our position is. And that position is not going to change.

Bret.

Q Following on that, Tony, is it sending mixed messages when people like Senator Chris Dodd now announced that he's going to go talk to President Assad some time soon? Are you saying that it's harmful to U.S. diplomatic efforts?

MR. SNOW: No, the U.S. diplomatic efforts are going to be the same, and the U.S. position is going to be the same. It is important --

Q No matter who lines up to go talk to the President of Syria?

MR. SNOW: Yes, we don't -- we have discouraged members of Congress from doing this. We spoke with Senator Nelson beforehand. He went. We think it's inappropriate.

Again, the Syrians know what they have to do in anything that is going to -- the concern here, among other things, is that this does not strengthen the hand of democracy in the region, and particularly for the Siniora government, but instead, allows the Syrians to dodge the real responsibilities they have.

Q Change topics real quick? Or are you staying --

MR. SNOW: Well, I think Helen wants to follow on that one. So go ahead, Helen.

Q Who are we to keep meddling in Iraq itself? You talk about meddling and adventuresome? And who are we to give orders to Syria and every other country?

MR. SNOW: We're not giving orders to anybody, Helen. They've got their choices to make. As far as the Iraqis, they made it clear --

Q Recommendations, constantly -- they're taking in a thousand refugees every day -- every month from Iraq.

MR. SNOW: And many of the refugees in Iraq are there because acts of terror have been perpetrated against them. The Syrians certainly have not been helpful in securing a more peaceful Iraq. The Syrians are under suspicion --

Q -- them shelter --

MR. SNOW: The Syrians are under suspicion of having some involvement in the assassinations of Rafiq Hariri and Pierre Gemayel. They have been fighting mightily against an open tribunal to figure out what happened. And again, our commitment is to democracy and we think that people in the region are going to be better off living in free democracies rather than under the sway of governments that deny their rights and use such things as murder and terror as ways of imposing their will.

Q That's such a broad accusation. How many people do we have that we have accused and held in confinement in limbo for four years without any trial without any trial, without any charge?

MR. SNOW: We have provided for the civil rights -- notice that you've completely jumped off of the topic now of the behavior of the Lebanese. What we are doing is that we have passed a law with regard to the Hamdan legislation that guarantees the civil rights of people who have been pulled off battlefields. We have a reasonable suspicion they're trying to kill --

Q Four years without a charge or a trial --

MR. SNOW: -- who we have reasonable suspicion to believe have been trying to kill Americans. And I don't know about you, but I think that's a bad thing. And I think you do, too.

Q Tony --

Q That's a lousy way to twist it.

MR. SNOW: No, it's not. What has happened is you and I have now been in a series of questions where I'll answer a question and then the subject changes. And so we've hopscotched from the human rights record of the Syrians to the democracy in Lebanon --

Q What about our human rights record?

MR. SNOW: Well, we will stand by it.

Q Tony, when some people have called for troops to be pulled out of Iraq, the President has said he relies on the commanders. And he has said, no, he's not going to do that, based on the advice of the commanders. Now that the service chiefs have told him they don't think it's a good idea to put a large share of more U.S. troops into Iraq, does that rule that out as an option since the President relies --

MR. SNOW: Don't presume you know everything the service chiefs have said just because you've read the newspaper.

Q Okay, well, then I will follow up. Are you denying The Washington Post report --

MR. SNOW: I am not -- no, because we have made it clear that we're really not going to comment on these, because to get in the business of affirming or denying will set off a chain of testing out every new theory. And we're going to leave it to the President to make the decision. And so I know it's frustrating, but I'm not going to be able to give satisfaction on the President's view of various things that may have appeared in the paper.

Q If the service chiefs do advise that --

MR. SNOW: The President will make the decision he thinks is most appropriate. And he certainly respects the advice of the service chiefs. But keep in mind you have service chiefs. You have combatant commanders. You have the Secretary of Defense. You have a lot of people involved in the decision loop, and he has spent a lot of time -- he's mentioned many times that he certainly defers to in many cases and appreciates the advice of people who are on the ground like General Casey, General Abizaid and others in the theater. And he takes it very seriously. But I'm not going to try to lay out for you, especially on the basis of things that have been leaked in one way, shape or form.

I don't want -- I want to caution you against taking the story of the day and saying, ah-hah, that's it. So I'm in the uncomfortable position of neither being able to affirm nor deny stories. And it's going to have to be that way until the President comes forward.

Q The President yesterday said that about 5,900 enemy forces have either been killed or captured in about the last two and a half months. Can you elaborate on that? I mean, he just made one broad statement about that. What other information do you have to back that up, in terms of --

MR. SNOW: Well, those are -- that's the information that's been produced by our people in the field.

Q Why did he decide to give enemy body counts? That's something that they've generally tried to stay away from.

MR. SNOW: Well, that's a good question. I won't try to -- rather than trying to tell you why the President said what he said -- because I can't give you the exact -- I can't put him on the couch right now -- what I can do is at least offer one possible reason why that's an important data point for Americans, which is there's a lot of concern about U.S. casualties and deaths, as there should be -- 103 deaths in October alone. And there is quite often the impression -- and I've talked about it up here, that our people aren't doing anything, they're just targets. And I think there's a certain amount of unease in the American public because they hear about deaths but they don't hear about what's going on.

I was speaking last night with a service member just recently back; he was at our party. And he's frustrated because a lot of the activities they do never get reported. Well, one of the things that never seems to be counterposed to the death counts is what our servicemen and women are doing. And one of the things they're doing is they're fighting the bad guys. And as General Chirelli said recently, the bad guys haven't won a single battle. For obvious reasons, going back to Vietnam era, people are loathe to do body counts. But it probably is worth at least giving a general impression of relative battlefield success of what's going on, which is a great many members of al Qaeda in Anbar and also people who are committing acts of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere are dying or being captured as a result of these military activities.

Q Tony, is this something that the White House would like the America public to judge? We killed this many bad guys, versus how many of us are killed? Is that something you want as a metric from now on?

MR. SNOW: I don't know. But I think -- I think the most -- I think it is important that Americans learn as much as possible about what's going on in Iraq, and that's not merely militarily, to get a sense of where the violence is located, how widespread it is, what's going on in civil society, is there hope in certain provinces, what is the full picture in Iraq. And I'm afraid that that is something that people have not fully received. And so we will be talking about the fuller picture, good news and bad news.

Q Can I say that the White House and Pentagon have all said this is counterinsurgency, and certainly now sectarian violence. And when you look at a counterinsurgency, you don't win a counterinsurgency by killing a whole lot of people. So I guess my question is, do you really want the American public to say --

MR. SNOW: As I said, that's why --

Q -- this is how many people we've killed? Because that's --

MR. SNOW: Again, that's --

Q -- your commanders will tell you that's not how you win it.

MR. SNOW: The commanders will tell you a couple of things. Number one, when you're fighting insurgents, if they're dead, they're not going to fight you anymore. But the other important thing about counterinsurgency is that it has to be part of a broader program, which we've talked about many times, which involves not merely -- we've talked about Baghdad neighborhoods, for instance, clean hold, but you've also got to sustain those neighborhoods. And that involves creating a police force that is reliable and trusted. It means creating economic opportunities so you don't leave a vacuum behind. It involves creating political consensus in the country so that people have buy-in. So as the generals themselves have said --

Q But that's not happening, which is why he went to the body counts?

MR. SNOW: No, there -- no. A lot of these things are happening --

Q A lot of those aren't --

MR. SNOW: Well, you don't assume that because we've introduced a new piece of evidence that other evidence does not play into the conversation.

Q And if you look back on numbers that have been given here and in the Pentagon about how many enemy there are over the years, I mean, at one point it's 5,000, at one it's 20,000. So in the last three months, you've killed or captured 5,000 -- it seems like all the enemies should be gone at this point.

MR. SNOW: Well, again, Martha, I know. But I'm just telling you that -- I told you I'm not going to put the President on the couch. I'm offering you a possible explanation. But it is important that people get a fuller picture. And you've heard it from troops, I've heard it from troops, and it should not be limited simply to that. But one also should not assume that people out there are simply dying in vain or that our men and women are not accomplishing things when they're taking on the people who are committing acts of violence that has killed thousands of Iraqis.

Q Can I follow up on that? Are you making differentiation between suicide bombers and insurgents or terrorists and insurgents or are they all lumped together in the same --

MR. SNOW: Anybody who is trying to take down this government or destabilize the democracy through acts of violence are enemies to the democracy in Iraq.

Sheryl.

Q Tony, two Syria questions. First, was the White House statement on Syria yesterday timed to coincide with Senator Nelson's visit?

MR. SNOW: No. I know it was sort of coincidental, but it was not timed to coincide.

Q Okay. And second, it's not only Senator Dodd who will be going, but also by the end of the year, Senator Kerry and Senator Specter, a member of your own party, is planning a trip to Syria. Is the President concerned that with the Baker-Hamilton report's call for direct engagement with Syria that, in a way, these visits are costing him control of his own foreign policy?

MR. SNOW: No, the President is in charge of foreign policy. It may cost some people their credibility. It's one of these things where, again --

Q Has it lost these senators their credibility?

MR. SNOW: It might. We'll have to see. I mean, they -- the point here is that the American government position is clear, and that the Syrians know what they have to do. And it is also important for the Syrians to understand -- and you'll have to ask the senators what it is that they hope to achieve -- but it is also clear that the Syrians need to understand, if they don't already, that this government's position is clear about what their responsibilities and obligations are.

Q When you say it may cost some people their credibility, what do you mean by that?

MR. SNOW: Well, as I pointed out, Senator Nelson went and thought that he'd gotten concessions out of Bashar Assad two years ago and he came back empty-handed. Apparently what he thought President Assad had promised to him was not something that actually was offered.

Q Can I follow -- does this undermine the President?

MR. SNOW: No. No.

Q Can I follow -- do these visits --

MR. SNOW: Again, that's -- no, it doesn't.

Q Can I follow up?

Q Two questions.

MR. SNOW: Well, first, I want to stay -- let's stay on topic, Les, and is it on this topic or is it elsewhere?

Q Yes.

MR. SNOW: It's on Syria?

Q Well, it's on Afghanistan and Iraq.

MR. SNOW: We'll get to that in a moment.

Q Can I follow on what Sheryl's asking?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q Despite the administration's disapproval of the trips to Syria, who in the administration has been briefing the senators when they return --

MR. SNOW: I'm not sure -- I don't know that there's going to be a debrief. I'll find out for you.

Look, you may recall that there was also a delegation that went and said, don't fight Saddam Hussein, something that apparently the Iraqi people disagree with, as they try him for hundreds of thousands of deaths performed under his auspices. So it is not unusual for -- well, it is not unusual. It has happened in the past that people who -- have embarked upon trips that did not enjoy the support of the government. And this has happened to Democrats and Republicans. But we'll see. I mean, what we have done is that we have spoken, for instance, with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey about his trips and others. So we have talked to people who have had direct conversations at a diplomatic level with the governments of Iran and Syria. But this is one of those where --

Q Can you check on that?

MR. SNOW: Yes, I will, and I'm not sure I'll have an answer for you today, but I'll get one.

Q Can I ask you --

MR. SNOW: Yes, please.

Q On the President's upcoming speech, what risk does he run by ramping up the expectations of Americans --

MR. SNOW: The President --

Q Let me just -- by presenting a speech that may look to them like he has the keys to turn a corner, and that the results soon after might be different. Is there a risk there?

MR. SNOW: I'm not aware that he has ever presented it that way. This is one of the interesting things where things are hotly anticipated and we get questions every day about the process. The President says he wants a better way forward. We have to have a new way forward to be more effective in building an Iraq -- but it is also the case, in a time of war, that it is a complex business and it involves a lot of work. And what the President is going to do is to explain how he sees the situation and how he intends to address it.

So we're not trying to inflate expectations. What the President is doing is practicing leadership. I think everybody acknowledges that the security operations in and around Baghdad have not achieved the desired results and that it's very important to do better; that the process of building a more professional police force still has a long way to go; and that sectarian violence, which was not a giant concern or was not atop the list of concerns a year ago, is, as Martha pointed out, a very real concern today.

So the endpoint of what's going on right now is not a speech, it's policy. It is a way forward where the President will be instructing those involved to do things differently than they are doing now.

It is also the case that when you're in a time of war you still will continually look at the situation, looking at the changing dynamics, and adjust accordingly. There is never a situation where it's like, ah-hah, it's finished now, because war -- people will adjust to whatever changes we may make in moving forward, and that means that's going to necessitate yet other adjustments on our part.

But I think it's important for the public to hear from the President honestly about what he sees and what he thinks is the most effective way to move forward. I think that is the way in which the public can get a fuller sense of how he views the situation. And I think that's always powerful and useful.

Q Back to Syria. How did it happen that Nelson was told this was not a good idea? Who gave him the word?

MR. SNOW: I'll find out. That I don't know. I know that the administration communicated to him that we did not think it was appropriate, but I do not know precisely with whom he spoke.

Q Will it be in the process of telling all the other aforementioned senators who plan to go there the same thing?

MR. SNOW: Well, I think they know now. It's out there, guys. (Laughter.)

Syrian questions? Iraq? Syria? Okay, Jennifer, Syria.

Q Just quickly, you said that these visits, or specifically, Nelson's visit, I can presume the others, lend a specter of legitimacy to this government. So why not cut off diplomatic relations if you're concerned about giving them legitimacy?

MR. SNOW: Because we still have diplomatic relations, but it's also important -- and I'm not going to get into the sort of chess board game, but it's also obvious that the Syrians have things to do. We've communicated it clearly with them. But on the other hand -- and we continue to communicate when we deem it appropriate with their government.

Q Will the President accept the reported recommendations of the Joint Chiefs and order the pullback of the U.S. troops from the cities and have them devote most of their efforts --

MR. SNOW: Sarah, have you listened to me the last week? I'm not going to talk to you about specific plans that may appear in a newspaper.

Q How about this one?

MR. SNOW: You said it in a most charming way, but I can't comment on that.

Q I have one more.

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q Is he planning to visit the troops over the holidays?

MR. SNOW: You mean, is he planning on going to Iraq?

Q To Iraq.

MR. SNOW: No.

Q Tony, on Iraq. First of all, I'm really thankful to the President and the First Lady for the grand reception last night. My question is on Iraq, Syria, and also -- Tony, we are dealing with three groups of people, Sunni, Shia, and Kurds, and all those are supported by different governments, like one group by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, one group by Syria and Iran, and another group, Kurds, are different. So where do we stand and why our troops, all our money is being spent there, we are dying there for them. But how much this Saudi Arabia is doing there, because rich country, and they have influence in the area -- already we spend --

MR. SNOW: What exactly is the question?

Q -- these people together, what are we doing, as far as Saudi Arabia --

MR. SNOW: Are you saying that we should insist that the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Turks assemble their own military forces and put them in Iraq? Is that what you're saying?

Q Well, they should come out really to solve this problem, because this is their problem --

MR. SNOW: They can all play constructive roles. You've got to keep in mind, the Iraqi government has the authority to ask people to help, and in different ways. And so what you're doing is presuming that somehow, in a metaphysical sense, these people ought to be doing something, so send troops. That may not be the view of the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government has relations with its neighbors, and it's important that it build on those relations, and that they all contribute to the effort to trying to reduce levels of violence and allow that democracy to sustain itself. And you can do that in ways other than troops. For instance, the international compact -- working on building investment. And there are areas in Iraq right now where that is certainly an attractive and important thing to do.

There are ways to do it such as going after the sources of financing for terror organizations, and also making clear diplomatically to the Iranians and Syrians that their behavior is unacceptable. So, Goyal, there are a lot of ways to participate in this process that don't necessarily involve the commitment of forces.

Q Iran is supplying arms and money to the Shia group there.

MR. SNOW: We are aware of that.

Q The President has been saying for several years now that he defers to commanders on the ground when it comes to troop levels. General Abizaid was on the Hill about a month ago saying -- he was asked point blank, do you want more troops, he said, no.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q Would the President be willing to essentially overrule Abizaid and Casey if he felt that there were more troops needed?

MR. SNOW: Well, the President will make the decisions that he thinks are most appropriate for a proper way forward. He's the Commander-in-Chief. Again, what people -- military commanders also take a look at shifting situations on the ground. And sometimes they refine their views of what's going on. I'm not saying that's happening. Again, we're getting into this -- I'm back on the tight rope. I'm back into "neither confirm nor deny" mode. But the point is that the President is going to do what he thinks is the most effective way forward so that there can be the conditions that will allow an Iraqi government to defend, sustain and govern itself.

Q If he felt it was necessary to overrule military commanders to do so --

MR. SNOW: He is the Commander-in-Chief, and he will do what he deems necessary.

Q You've also sort of expanded the definition of who he defers to on that. You included the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commander, the Joint Chiefs, and the commanders on the ground.

MR. SNOW: No, I was talking to people -- I was talking about people -- I think the original question was raised, I think the subtext was in the context of yesterday's meeting, where you had the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, you had the service branch chiefs. The day before you had Generals Casey and Abizaid in a meeting. So obviously -- when somebody was saying advice from generals, there are a lot of people who have different roles. And it's important to take into account and under consideration what each and every one of those has to offer.

Q Over the weekend, Ahmed Chalabi met with the Syrian Foreign Minister. And according to an American diplomat, he's currently gauging the interest of the Assad regime in some kind of limited rapprochement with the United States. What role is Ahmed Chalabi playing for the Bush administration with regards to Syria?

MR. SNOW: I'm aware of none.

Q Could you find out if there's some role?

MR. SNOW: You know what, my guess is, no. But I will try.

Q Would you try, because if he is playing a role, that would say that we are making some kind of effort to have --

MR. SNOW: I understand that, that's why -- but there are also -- there are also times when people will make claims about what they are doing, and the auspices under which they're doing it. And sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong.

Paula.

Q As you know, federal recruitment efforts have really been ramped up to meet the monthly quota which, I believe, they've been doing.

MR. SNOW: They've actually met and exceeded the yearly quotas, that's correct.

Q Right. But I think about a month ago, you disputed the notion that poor and disadvantaged young men and women don't choose the military for education purposes or job training; that, while it's a ladder of opportunity, you've said that it's really a calling --

MR. SNOW: Paula, what I was pointing out is that I think there was -- and maybe you and I were talking past each other -- that it was primarily an educational opportunity for the poor. And I was pointing out that people from all classes of society sign up because it is a calling.

And by the way, educational opportunities and a calling are not inconsistent with one another. And people who need educations are going to get -- but I have a feeling that we're making the transition into educational funding issues in the United States again.

Q I'm talking about other ways you can have a calling, and one of them is community service, which the President has promoted. So I'm just wondering why isn't the government making the same amount of effort to recruit particularly disadvantaged and young people to AmeriCorps, VISTA, where you can get training and higher education grants? And like their wealthier counterparts who have the advantage of maturity and making the decision in four years, they at least have two years to make a mature decision before deciding, do I want to go in the military, do I want to go --

MR. SNOW: That's -- that's a question -- that's about an eight-bumper shot, and I'm not sure I can put the pieces together in a way that -- I mean, what you're saying is, what if they make these different decisions -- look, let me put it this way -- and somebody cautioned me about saying that, apparently I say that too often, but I'm going to try to do it anyway -- there are any number of ways of pursuing opportunity in this society, and they're not mutually exclusive.

This is an administration that has devoted considerable time and resources to the cause of volunteerism and will continue to do so; a President who has directed unprecedented levels of funding toward community colleges and who has made an effort to insist that education actually work for people. No Child Left Behind is about putting together an educational system where the kind of education you get in terms of public education is something that will fulfill the basic needs of every student, regardless of where they live.

So I think what you're trying to say is, golly, why can't we get people into things other than the military, and the answer is, we can. And many people decide to do so.

Q But why aren't you ramping up recruitment in these areas?

MR. SNOW: You set priorities as a government.

David.

Q Let me take one more try on Syria. The President is obviously interested in what the Assad government is saying, because he's asking Prime Minister Erdogan about it. What exactly -- you also say that these trips by senators are not --

MR. SNOW: Here's --

Q -- what exactly makes these trips inappropriate?

MR. SNOW: What makes it inappropriate is the United States has a clear position, and you want to make sure that you're sending a clear message, and not mixed messages, to the Syrians about the fact that they have obligations. They would love for us to talk with them. But they've got to do something. They have to demonstrate --

Q So is the concern --

MR. SNOW: They have to demonstrate -- no, the concern -- because they understand what the U.S. government position is. We want to make sure that they understand that just because they have visitors does not mean that the position of the United States government has changed.

Q Tony.

MR. SNOW: Les.

Q Two questions. What is the President's perception of the effectiveness of the United Nations and how that -- will that play a role in addressing future international crises, such as that in Afghanistan or Iraq?

MR. SNOW: That's an awfully gauzy and metaphysical question -- his "perception of"? The President -- the President has made it --

Q Perception of the United Nations --

MR. SNOW: The President has made it clear that he wants the United Nations to be more effective in addressing all of these, including humanitarian concerns in places like Darfur, and that the United Nations also has to deal forthrightly, not only with a robust commitment to democracy, but also with a reform agenda, because there have been some problems within the United Nations.

Q Have you or the President had any comment or concern about The Weekly Standard's six-page report headlined, "Warriors for Hire: Blackwater USA and the Rise of Private Military Contractors"?

MR. SNOW: I haven't even read it, so you can -- you can scratch me off the list.

Q You're aware of this, of what's going on, aren't you?

MR. SNOW: Well, I know the Blackwater has been involved in some security operations.

Q Has the President expressed any concern about Blackwater?

MR. SNOW: Not to me.

Q Thank you.

MR. SNOW: Thank you.

END 1:29 P.M. EST