For Immediate Release
December 6, 2006
Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EST
MR. SNOW: Welcome. The President had a good meeting this morning with the Iraq Study Group. As you know, the Group presented its report to the President at a 7:00 a.m. meeting. Just a couple of opening observations, then I'll be happy to take questions.
It was a meeting noteworthy I think for the civility and also the goodwill of the participants on the panel, and also just the general tone and tenor of the conversation, which was entirely constructive. This is an organization that has made it clear that it sees its mission not as one of trying to draw partisan lines, but, in fact, trying to make a contribution to an issue that is of extreme importance to this country. As you've heard Leon Panetta say, it's a nation that has been divided over this war and we need to become united. And members of the Study Group think that they have found a way, and we are certainly going to study it with great care.
At the outset, the President thanked all of them for their hard work. He said -- and I think it's an accurate prediction -- he said, the country is going to pay a lot of attention to your work -- which has happened, happening today. He noted the distinguished nature of the panel and said, we're going to give it a close look. And after the panel had gone through and each member had given observations about his or her role and what they thought of the report, the President then thanked them all once again and said that, we're going to give this close study.
A couple of preliminary notes -- and I know that many of you have had a chance to look through it -- but I think you get a sense for the tenor of the report from the very opening sentences in the executive summary. Actually, the letter from the co-chairs says, "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests. Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq, but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war."
At the beginning of the recommendations, in terms of what the commission thinks might provide a way forward, commission members noted, "We agree with the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq as stated by the President: an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself. In our view, this definition entails an Iraq with a broadly representative government that maintains its territorial integrity, is at peace with its neighbors, denies terrorism a sanctuary, and doesn't brutalize its own people."
As you know, there are diplomatic tracts in here, there are discussions about military, there are discussions about the role of the Iraqis. Members of the Baker-Hamilton commission did, in fact, do a secure video teleconference earlier today with members of the Maliki government and, at least according to press reports, the Maliki government also thought it was a very good exchange.
Now, you may hear some people trying to flyspeck the report. There may be even anonymous voices within the administration that may try to draw conclusions. I would just let you know that that's not going to be the White House position. We're going to take a look at this. And it's going to be tempting to ask me to give the President's evaluation of any one of the 79 recommendations; I'm not going to do that. But I will be happy to talk about many of the areas within the report. But we're studying it. We got it at 7:00 a.m. this morning and, therefore, I think it probably deserves close study and scrutiny, and that's exactly what it's going to get.
Q Tony, about the evaluation, can I just start on the point of --
MR. SNOW: I think David is out-shouting you --
Q Well, that's not fair at all --
MR. SNOW: We'll go to David. David, yes.
Q On the evaluation in the report it says the following -- the co-chairs say the following: "'Stay the course' is no longer viable. The current approach is not working. The situation is grave and deteriorating." Chairman Hamilton says he is not sure whether the situation can be turned around. Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this President's handling of the war?
MR. SNOW: Absolutely. And I think you need to read the report --
Q I have.
MR. SNOW: You've read the whole report?
Q No, I've gone through a lot of the recommendations.
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I read the whole report, and I will tell you, also based on the conversations --
Q But this is from the Chairman.
MR. SNOW: Well, if you listen to the Chairman you will have noted that he's not trying to --
Q They were all quotes, Tony.
MR. SNOW: David, please. You get mad --
Q -- report, I'm just saying those were all quotes.
MR. SNOW: I know. I know they're all quotes. I'm now going to try to proceed to try to place them in context. Number one, they are not trying to score partisan points or to look back. The one thing this is, is they're not doing look-back. The second thing is that they understand the difficulties. They have adopted the goals that the administration has laid out.
Why don't you go back and read through some of these and I'll go ahead and deal with them. Go back on your notes there and give me the comments one at a time.
Q "'Stay the course' is no longer viable."
MR. SNOW: Okay, stop -- no, no, stop.
Q But --
MR. SNOW: No, no, I just want to address them in their order, and I'm going to forget, so I'd rather just let you do it one at a time.
Q It's kind of a totality question, though. How you can hear these things and not conclude that it's rejection of the President's policy?
MR. SNOW: Well, number one, "stay the course" is not the policy. And you know the President has been saying that for months. And if you take a look, what they're talking is moving from so-called "stay the course," it is what? It is this, it is working on a process where the United States works as aggressively as possible to hand over governing responsibilities to the Iraqis, which is precisely what's going on.
If you listen to what Chuck Robb said, he's the one who gave context to it, which is that you work on training up the Iraqis so they can what? Sustain, govern and defend themselves. Which is, we agree. And so "stay the course" is not an option.
And in a situation where you have -- to go on to the other point, where you've got a deteriorating security situation in areas of Baghdad -- which the President talked about before the election in the press conference, saying that that is a situation that was not acceptable and we needed to address -- that, in fact, you look at this as somebody trying to make a constructive difference in a situation, the realities of which we have discussed and taking a look at policies, many of which we find very interesting and certainly we're going to be talking in more detail about.
But you need to understand that trying to frame it in a partisan way is actually at odds with what the Group, itself, says it wanted to do. And so you may try to do whatever you want in terms of rejection, that's not the way they view it.
Q I just want to be clear. Are you suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q You are? Based on the fact that --
MR. SNOW: Because --
Q Wait a minute, wait a second. Based on quoting the report and the Chairman, and I'm asking you a straight question, which you're not answering straight, you're actually --
MR. SNOW: No, I am --
Q -- you're trying to answer it by --
MR. SNOW: No, here's the --
Q -- nitpicking it.
MR. SNOW: No.
Q You're suggesting that by quoting the report, I'm trying to make a partisan argument?
MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way. Where in the report -- what you have said is, can you read this as anything other than a repudiation of policy. And the answer is, I can. And what I was trying to do was to explain to you, for instance, when you suggested that "stay the course" was a repudiation of policy -- not true. It's not administration policy. When you talk about the fact that there's a deteriorating situation, is that a repudiation of policy. No, it's something that we have acknowledged.
So what you have asked is a series of bullet points, each of which we have been discussing and addressing, and then you're asking if that is a repudiation of policy. No, it's an acknowledgment of reality, David.
Q Okay, just one follow-up here. I just want to be clear on what your argument is, because it's not entirely clear to me. But it is that --
MR. SNOW: You're trying to frame this as an argument. We're reading it. We're taking this in.
Q I know, you're clear in suggesting that I'm trying to frame this in a partisan way, I've got you on that. You're suggesting that the representations of this report are in sync with the way the President has described the reality in Iraq and his policy toward Iraq. Is that what you're saying?
MR. SNOW: Again, go through -- rather than -- because you'll accuse me of nitpicking -- read it. I mean, I'm serious. This is not -- I'm not trying to be snide. If you go through and you take a look at the metrics at the beginning, we've acknowledged that you've got a deteriorating situation in Baghdad. We have talked about the al Qaeda problems in Anbar. We have discussed the importance of trying to come up with a transition where the Iraqis stand up and take greater responsibility. We've talked about the importance of having Iraqis assume primary combat control. Last week you had -- or maybe even earlier this week -- you had Major General Caldwell in Baghdad talking about a timetable that's a lot like the one that's in this report.
And so what you have here I think is a basis for both political parties, actually, to be working together. We look at this as a very positive document, and rather than -- again, I don't want to get into the business of trying to render judgment on individual recommendations, but I will tell you it was very striking to all of us in the room -- when you listen to Lee Hamilton, or you listen to Vernon Jordan or you listen on the other side to Ed Meese or Sandra Day O'Connor -- these are people who have said that they've never been in a commission like this before, because this town is awash in bipartisan commissions, you know that. This is not someone where somebody put on the ceremonial bipartisan hat and just went through the motions. These people worked very hard.
And the one thing that they thought was absolutely important is to rebuild a sense of national unity on that. And that is their overriding objective. And you can talk to Leon Panetta, who made a point of that in the briefing that many of you attended on Capitol Hill; or you can talk to the members individually. But that will strike -- and it was something that we saw as positive and constructive. And one of the things they said is, we're not coming here, Mr. President, to criticize you.
What they said is that this is an -- they see an opportunity to come with a new way forward. Well, yes, and we like that. We like the formulation; it's what the President has been talking about; it is why he's instructed relevant institutions throughout this government to take a fresh look at what's going on.
Q Tony, I'm not going to shout --
MR. SNOW: Martha, go ahead. That's all right, yes.
Q You're going to call on me, because I'm not going to shout, you're just going to come to me.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, I was going to call on you anyway. Thank you, Martha. Go ahead.
Q Very good. It appears from some of the things that the President has said, despite the fact you say for several months he has said, we're not going to stay the course, he said --
MR. SNOW: Can we get the mic on in here?
Q I am not going to shout. (Laughter.) Okay, I will shout.
MR. SNOW: I'll re-paraphrase it. I apologize. Go ahead.
Q One of the things that it appears the President has done in the last week, and in Jordan, as well, is he has ruled out some things: talking to Iran; goals, and we asked him specifically last week about goals for the Iraqis to attain. These are some of the recommendations in this report. So has he, in fact, ruled out some of these recommendations?
MR. SNOW: Well, keep in mind, with the -- it's interesting because -- let me just go to the question of Iran, and then I'll go to the issue of goals. Well, I'll do goals because that's easier and I don't have to leaf to a page.
On the issue of goals, what you've had is the Iraqi government, itself, has been doing benchmarks. We had this long benchmark discussion a few weeks ago. It is clear that there has to be progress. I think if you read what's going on here in this document, it says that the Iraqis do have to make progress and demonstrate real effort on national reconciliation, on economic development, on diplomatic efforts with their neighbors, and certainly on the security fronts.
And in that regard, we've seen a lot of action in the last couple of days. Prime Minister Maliki yesterday, I don't know if you saw, but he had a press conference in Baghdad and actually ended up addressing these things, and he hadn't seen the report because he just got briefed on it. But among other things, he called for a regional conference to be attended by all neighbors, and I imagine GCC countries and others, to talk about issues of mutual security. He talked about a declared national reconciliation initiative, and they're going to be meeting in mid-December. That's a key part of this report. He talked about Iraq being for all Iraqis and Iraq's riches for all. He talked about the hydrocarbon law, which is a critical matter addressed in the report. He talked about having a cabinet reshuffling in certain ministries.
Q But by when, Tony? Are there benchmarks? Does this have to happen by a certain time or does something happen --
MR. SNOW: No, and if you look in it, there are no suggestions for drop-dead dates or benchmarks. If you look at the report, what it says is that you want to see and you need to expect real progress on the part of Iraqis. What I'm saying to you is, we're already seeing encouraging signs out of the government, itself, in the words and the actions of the Prime Minister. When you're talking about the national reconciliation initiative, he's talking in the next couple of weeks. When you're talking about diplomatic outreach, he's doing it now. When you're talking about a cabinet reshuffle, that apparently is going to happen within the next couple of weeks. The investment law, which is mentioned in here, has been drafted by the parliament. The hydrocarbon law has been drafted and it's going to be presented.
Q But I'm talking about on the sectarian violence, which is the primary problem.
MR. SNOW: We obviously want to do that, and the President --
Q And are there benchmarks for that, or are you ruling them out?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I mean, the point is, what you want to see is a reduction in this. And let's put it this way: The first thing you want is a demonstration of seriousness and capability. And the President had very honest conversations with Prime Minister Maliki about that. He met with Mr. al Hakim a couple of days ago and spoke about militias. He will be meeting with Sunni leaders and will be having conversations about insurgencies.
The fact is, each of these issues is being taken up. Whether there's a date certain or a number, I don't know if they're going to be attached to it. But on the other hand, to get back to something that David might have mentioned, open-ended commitments, there is no open-ended commitment and we've never said there was. And the commission says, you need to have -- or the Iraq Study Group -- you need to have the Iraqis standing up.
What is reassuring to us -- and obviously we have to wait and see how it works out -- is that the Iraqi government is saying the same thing. And they are saying that they want to see more rapid progress in getting at violence in Baghdad, in getting at violence in al Anbar, in building political reconciliation. Part of the meeting with Mr. al Hakim was to strengthen a moderate block of Sunni and Shia so that you can have ways of isolating militias and rejectionist groups that are causing so much violence and bloodshed throughout Iraq.
Q Just one more thing. The report, the bipartisan report says they're not certain this can be turned around. Is the President certain the situation in Iraq can be turned around?
MR. SNOW: The President feels confident for the following reason -- and I understand -- what the commission is doing is acknowledging the great difficulty of the task ahead. The President believes in the transformational power of liberty, and he talks about it a lot. It's not a throwaway line. And what you have seen are people in Iraq already risking their lives, and you see a real rededication on the part of the Iraqis, and also very practical talk about what they think it's going to require.
For instance, to deal with sectarian violence. When we were meeting in Amman, the conversations were far more concrete than they've been in the past, in terms of what they think they need. And you have discussions of the way forward. But the point is, the President believes that the power of the hope of liberty is something that you can't quantify, but it is certainly something that has propelled this nation into the forefront of history.
Q Is that a yes?
MR. SNOW: That is a yes.
Q Tony, the --
MR. SNOW: It's a yes, and a why, yes.
Q The report clearly advocates policies that are in opposition to administration policies. For instance, last week in Estonia the President said the only way to engage Iran is for Iran to verifiably suspend its enrichment program. And the report says you need to directly engage Iran. How do you square that?
MR. SNOW: Yes, I saw you ask that question before, and there are a couple of things. First, it's not clear, and it will be interesting to look at whether the report advocates one-on-one talks with Iran; there is talk about developing a support group. But let me tell you what it does say about Iran. Jim Baker, when he was answering your question --
Q Tony, it says "directly engage."
MR. SNOW: Yes, but "directly engage" -- but then it also talks about in the context of the support group.
Q But how are we going to redefine under the -- I think it says --
MR. SNOW: "Under the aegis of the support group."
Q That's right.
MR. SNOW: That's different, I think, than one-on-one conversations, which is something that --
Q Sounds to me like the support group oversees it, and the U.S. directly engages.
MR. SNOW: Well, we'll see. But I'm telling you that there may be a difference between one-on-one talks with Iran, which is something that we have ruled out.
Q And that remains ruled out?
MR. SNOW: Yes, unless Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities. But it was interesting because -- as I said, I don't want to rule out entirely because it's worth taking a good look at what all this means. Let me make a couple of points.
Number one, as Jim Baker told you, he's fairly skeptical about the Iranians, and that in many ways a proffer of this sort may be a way of smoking out their intentions.
Says the report: "Iran sees it in its interest to have the United States bogged down in Iraq." It also says, "Its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq. They attribute this reluctance to their belief that the United States seeks regime change in Iran," even though we have said we don't.
Then it also says -- and this is equally important because there's considerable realism about the activities and also the mischief being conducted by the governments of Iran and Syria. I'll just deal with Iran right now -- it says, "Iran should stem the flow of equipment, technology and training to any group resorting to violence in Iraq." It says, "Iran should make clear its support for the territorial integrity of Iraq as a unified state, as well as respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and its government."
It says of Iran, "Iran can use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq to encourage national reconciliation, and that it can help in economy reconstruction." There are a lot of things -- so there are a lot of things Iran needs to do. There is realism and skepticism about Iran.
We think -- let me put it this way: We share the goal of having all of these problems addressed and addressed in an effective way when it comes to Iran and similarly with Syria.
Q Let me just follow up on this.
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Is it enough, as the President also suggested, for Iraq to engage Iran and Syria, or --
MR. SNOW: Well, we expect -- again, Jim, let's -- first, on the issue of Iraq dealing with Iran and Syria, we expect them to. They're neighbors.
Q But this is one of the fundamental components of this report --
MR. SNOW: I know and that's why, as I said, I'm not going to give you a full readout and specific recommendations among the 79. Give us a couple of days to try to parse it, because that's an interesting one and I've raised the question --
Q Well, one question -- and I don't think you need a couple of days for -- as I asked Mr. Baker and didn't get an answer: Does the President have the capacity to pull a U-turn on some of this stuff?
MR. SNOW: Well, you're assuming that the President has to pull U-turns. I'm not sure I agree.
Q To go along with that, then, so should we assume that there is wiggle room for the President in embracing some of these recommendations that he has expressed opposition to before?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I would take a close look -- I'm not going to get into the position of characterizing --
Q You're saying that he's going to weigh this whole report and there's a lot of -- and there's many things in the report that he's already said, no way, Jos , you know --
MR. SNOW: Like what?
Q Engaging Iran and Syria, for starters.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, it didn't say -- we have never said -- what we've said is Iran and Syria know what they have to do to have direct diplomatic talks. That's what we've said.
Q So he's not going to change his mind on that?
MR. SNOW: Again, why don't you -- I think this needs -- everybody go back and read this carefully. I think it requires some parsing and we need to parse it, too. I'm not going to give you an answer to that question today.
Q So there is a chance that he could change his mind?
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to give you an answer -- the President believes that Iran has to change its behavior. And it's interesting because there is -- this was discussed; there is an acknowledgment within the report of Iran's needing to address its own nuclear issues.
Q As the President reviews this and the other reports, will we hear about his policy moving forward before the end of the year?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. It's a good question. Bret, as the President has said, he has -- well, I don't know if he's said it, but we've told you, which is that he wants the reports being conducted within the administration done as quickly as possible. And when he's had a chance to review all that, he will describe what he sees as the way forward, because it's clear that the present situation is not one that could be sustained or accepted.
Q You've said you don't want to go down point-by-point on recommendations --
MR. SNOW: Right, yes.
Q -- although you already talked about Iran, saying that that's a no-go on one-on-one --
MR. SNOW: No, I didn't say that. I said --
Q On one-on-one talks, you said that's a non-starter.
MR. SNOW: I told you what our position is, but I've also suggested -- I'm not sure that the characterization in this room is exactly what the commission is talking -- but it's worth taking a look at.
Q Okay. How about the assessment by the commission -- by the Iraq Study Group, that significant under-reporting of the actual level of violence in Iraq is --
MR. SNOW: I think what it's talking about -- and this is worth noting also -- is the toll of what's going on in terms of murders of innocent civilians. That's basically what you're looking at. I think it's important for people to understand the gravity and the seriousness of what's going on and also the depravity of the people who are doing it.
Q Last one. It says, The U.S. intelligence community "still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of militias."
MR. SNOW: That is part of a section that talks about the fact that there -- it recommends more Arabic speakers. It suggests the need for better and more robust intelligence. And that's something that --
Q So that's fairly critical of the administration.
MR. SNOW: Well, I don't know -- Bret, as you know, as a former Pentagon correspondent, the Pentagon has been trying to address these. But you don't snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need overnight. And you don't snap your fingers and have the intelligence capability on the ground that you would wish to have.
As the report notes, we have tripled the amount of intelligence we get, but it's still approximately 30 percent of what they think they can gather. That obviously is a figure you want to improve on. I don't know if I would call that a criticism of the administration, so much as an acknowledgment that we have improvements to make in the intelligence area. And that is a result of having had for many years in this country the discouragement of human intelligence efforts. And since September 11th, there certainly has been a much more aggressive effort to try to get people trained up, but it sometimes takes a decade or more to get people trained.
And so what we ended up having was a lack of capacity in the system when we were struck on September 11th. And it is absolutely the case -- it's not a surprise, the 9/11 Commission Report has a lot on this -- that it's vital to improve our intelligence capabilities, and also our ability to work with the Iraqis to get as much as intelligence as we can with their help and aid, as well.
Q Tony, can I follow up an answer you gave Jim just quickly, because we're dancing around this Iran question. I think you said --
MR. SNOW: We'll probably continue to --
Q -- there may be a difference between one-on-one and engagement with Iran. Can you clarify that a little bit? So the United States might engage with them along with other people?
MR. SNOW: No, no, I won't. I'll continue dancing around it for today, because I think it's worth taking a look at exactly what this section was --
Q Well, what did you mean, exactly --
MR. SNOW: No, I'm just saying what it talks about --
Q -- is the difference between one-on-one --
MR. SNOW: What it talks about here is an Iraq -- under an aegis of an Iraq support group. And I just -- I, frankly, want to see what our --
Q The United States should directly engage --
MR. SNOW: But it talks about in the aegis of a support group. And, therefore, just -- like I say, give us time to parse it. I think it's an interesting suggestion. We're looking at it.
Q If the Iraqis hold a regional conference involving Iran and Syria, does that obviate the need for the United States to talk to Iran and Syria?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I'm not going -- I don't want to draw any conclusions on these things. But let me put it this way: We think it's welcome for the Iraqis, as a sovereign government, to do what they see fit.
In terms of strengthening regional ties, if you also look at it, the report recommends the mutual development of embassies in Baghdad and in capitals throughout the region. So it is clear that there's real support for aggressive and active diplomacy on the part of the Iraqis on issues of regional security, economic cooperation and so on, and that's a good thing.
I know it's frustrating, but I'm just not going to get into the issue about whether the United States -- that is not a forum, I believe, in which the United States would be involved. But I don't want to get into the "what should the United States do about Iran and Syria." What we've always said is, it's what Iran and Syria need to do. And they know it. And interestingly enough, the report lists each and every one of those concerns and agrees they need to do those things.
Q Tony, I want to follow on a question that was posed to the Iraq Study Group, where the President has consistently said he listens to the advice from commanders on the ground for guiding U.S. policy in Iraq. Considering this group, a few have been to Iraq, with the exception of one, have not been outside of the Green Zone --
MR. SNOW: I heard that question, too.
Q Exactly. But why should we believe or even think that the President is going to give more weight or considerable weight to this group and their recommendations than what he has been hearing from his commanders on the ground up until this point?
MR. SNOW: Well, are you saying that this is all inconsistent with what he hears from commanders on the ground?
Q That's your judgment, that's not mine.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, what you're trying to do is to draw them into opposition; at least it seems to me that the implicit -- the assumption there is that there is opposition.
The President is going to pay attention because these are men and women of accomplishment who have worked very hard -- and not just themselves, leaf to the back and you can see who the staff members are -- who have worked very hard at trying to take a fresh look at this. And they did not have to leave -- look, many of the reporters telling us what go on don't leave the Green Zone.
So I think it's worth noting that you have people who are doing their very best to collect as much intelligence as possible, and they've spoken with leaders of the Iraqi government. And they've spoken with leaders outside the Green Zone, and I think that this is a report that deserves real study and respect. And I know that's how the President feels, and he feels strongly about it.
So if you ask, how can I know, it's because that's what the President has said. I've seen him, and he said it with conviction. And it is something that all of us are taking very seriously today at the White House.
Q It's not an executive order, a piece of legislation, it's non-binding. How does the President see this particular set of recommendations? How does he weigh its significance compared to, say, the NSC's internal review, or what he will take a look at from the Pentagon?
MR. SNOW: Well, Suzanne, what he ends up doing is he makes decisions as Commander-in-Chief based on what he thinks makes the most sense. We haven't seen any of the other reviews. I don't think you want to try to start assigning weights to them. This is serious. And as Lee Hamilton has pointed out, it's also bipartisan.
I think, again, in the atmosphere of contemporary Washington, where there's always an attempt to try to take positions based on party loyalty rather than facts on the ground, it is really refreshing to have people say, no, I'm a lifelong Democrat, I'm putting that aside; I'm a lifelong Republican, I'm putting that aside; I want to do what's right for the country.
And this offers an opportunity, I think, for a lot of people to step away from campaign animosities and also rhetoric to say, what is good for the country, what's the best way to do this? And they have an opportunity here to take a look at a series of thoughtful analyses and to see which ones they think make sense, but also maybe to provide a basis for discussion.
And the President will be meeting today with bipartisan leaders of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees in Congress in both Houses. And I think it offers a very promising way maybe for everybody to be able to say, okay, campaign is over, the business of governing has begun. It's time to do what Americans have been able to do successfully before, which is pull together around a common challenge, an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself, and figure out the best way to move forward.
And to give you an example, you mentioned recommendations in here. I mean, it cites General Casey's own ambitions for transferring combat authority. So, I mean, we take seriously what they do because they're serious people, and they surrounded themselves with serious people, and they did an immense amount of work, and I think it deserves respect.
Q Can I get back to the overall assessment that the commission has given of the current situation?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Does the President agree that after three-and-a-half years of war, and what he has often called a plan for victory, the situation is grave and deteriorating?
MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way: There have -- what we're talking about is a contemporary snapshot of a situation where, in recent months, it has been deteriorating and that's a grave concern. When you have a capital city of Baghdad that is being affected by the kind of violence that has stricken the capital in -- you better believe it's a real concern, and it needs to be addressed.
Q Will he accept that --
MR. SNOW: Well, I think -- I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think it is safe to say that -- I know, you're trying -- no, put words in my mouth, that's why I'm trying to get the order right here.
But the fact is that there is no denying the level of violence -- and they took a look at four provinces, really, where they think it's almost entirely confined, but it's still a serious problem. Those four provinces account for 40 percent of the population of Iraq. And, therefore, it is a situation where you have -- I mean, October was the worst month we've had in a very long time. That does not mark an improvement, and therefore you really do have to roll up your sleeves and work at it. It is clear that the original plan for trying to bring stability to Baghdad didn't work. And so now you've got to go back to the drawing board.
Q As an overall characterization, he's not rejecting that --
MR. SNOW: Well, but on the other hand, as members of the commission have said, be careful about trying to sound bite this, because the commission also talks about increased democratic capacity in other parts of the country, it talks about the hopeful signs of progress on the political front, it talks about improvements and the problems in the oil fields.
So this is not -- when you talk about the security situation in Baghdad and Anbar and a couple of other provinces, yes, that is -- there has been deterioration in the last couple months. But there are a whole series of things going on within Iraq, including, as reported yesterday, successful operations in Anbar against al Qaeda targets. You can never say -- just as "stay the course" is something that doesn't happen, you also have to realize that characterizations are going to shift because you've got an immense amount of activity going on right now.
For instance, when those words were written, Prime Minister Maliki had not had the press conference he had yesterday, he hadn't had the conversations with Mr. al Hakim. There is a great deal of activity going on. The Iraqi government is beginning to stand up in very significant ways, and I think in some ways that vindicates the judgment of the people who have been working on this report and understand how important a priority that is.
Q Tony, on reconciliation, how far back is the President working the issue of reconciliation? And particularly I'm bringing that up as Friday the President is going to deal with that issue of Thabo Mbeki, giving examples of truth and reconciliation --
MR. SNOW: Well, let's put it this way: Reconciliation has been a topic of conversation between the President and the Prime Minister since their first meeting when we flew into Baghdad, shortly after Prime Minister Maliki took office. You did not have a permanent elected constitutional Iraqi government until that point.
So from the very beginning of this government, reconciliation has been a key concern; it has been voiced by the President repeatedly; it has been stressed by the President; it has been acknowledged by the government of Iraq. And I think as you see continuing operations to deal with other problems that are outlined in this report -- like the lack of discipline, corruption and, in some cases, outright violence, perpetrated by police forces -- we've talked about the need to address that. And General Casey has made that a priority.
The point is that reconciliation is critical. The Iraqis have to see themselves not only as a nation free, but as a nation whole, united by a sense of national purpose and national identity. And those have been key concerns throughout.
Q Can you talk to me again about South Africa? How is South Africa -- what does their example bring to Iraq -- the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- because they're unique, and yet they are so far --
MR. SNOW: I think what you're getting at may be the issue of amnesty, which is raised. You know, how is it that you turn swords into plowshares? And there may be -- you know, Nelson Mandela had the ability to get people who were committing acts of violence to stand down and stop doing it. And you do need transformational leaders who know how to turn old hostilities into a new sense of national unity.
Q I'll spare you the tax question and defer that to your deputy, but leading up to the war, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft wrote a column basically warning about if there's any preemptive strike or implementing a policy of preemption, that you have to have allied support much broader than your definition of coalition of the willing. And he also warned that if we were going in there and basically regarded as occupiers, rather than greeted as liberators, that there could be --
MR. SNOW: Conflagration?
Q Yes, thank you.
MR. SNOW: You're welcome.
Q In the Middle East.
MR. SNOW: Well, thank you. Now, I'm aware of the column.
Q May I ask the question?
MR. SNOW: Okay, good, yes.
Q Why didn't the administration seek Mr. Scowcroft's advice, or at least listen to it, rather than dismiss it as disloyal to the President?
MR. SNOW: I'm not sure that's what happened. It's before my time and I'm not going to revisit a five-year-old argument. Instead, I think what's most important to do at this point is what the commission says it wants to do, which is to work forward and build a sense of national unity.
Q Can you comment on the proposal to increase the reconstruction money for Iraq? Is that something --
MR. SNOW: No.
Q Isn't that something you all talked about already?
MR. SNOW: They have talked about it, but again, I just -- since I've already laid down the marker of not talking about specific items, not even for that one.
Q A process question. The President has had commission reports before 9/11 -- (inaudible) -- actually tasked the organization (inaudible) the material in different ways. Maybe I don't understand, maybe you talked about it earlier, but what did he and the Chief of Staff decide to do to take the 79, parcel them out, make sure they're absorbed in --
MR. SNOW: Well, I mean, there are standard ways of dealing with this, and you've got the NSC that's doing a review -- there are a number of offices that are busy doing reviews. So it is not -- there's not a sort of paper that says, eight working groups, you get here and get back to us. But --
Q There is no kind of organization that asks for --
MR. SNOW: We're all asking for it. I mean, everybody is looking at it.
Q But by a certain -- I'll give you an example. For instance, in the commission report, they would like to see in Iraq expenditures, the (inaudible) expenditures built into the '08 budget.
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q (Inaudible) is going to finish that presentation around Christmas for presentation in February. So you would assume that inside the White House there would be --
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to -- the one thing I'm not going to do is to either give you a jump on the State of the Union address or the budget, which will be released the first week of February.
Q No, no, I'm asking you a process question. So, for instance --
MR. SNOW: Things like that are constantly being considered. Is that going to be considered? Yes.
Q No, but I'm just -- is it divided up so OMB gets back to the President, NSC gets back to the President --
MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know.
Q Okay, that's all I wanted to know. You don't know.
MR. SNOW: I've been engaged in the business of reading the report and not doing the process.
Q Thank you. Tony, now that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has been reelected for --
MR. SNOW: Okay, let me just -- we're jumping off -- let's try to stay on this topic, get agreed on this topic, and anybody else -- then we'll get to topics other than this.
Q How many more Iraqis have to die before this is considered a civil war, rather than a sectarian conflict?
MR. SNOW: Well, I think that's a -- is that how you define what's a civil war?
Q I think Colin Powell considers this a civil war now --
MR. SNOW: I know Colin Powell has said it is, and a number of very thoughtful people have. And John Keegan, the foremost military historian in the world, says it's not. I don't think it's helpful to get into trying to reduce it to one or two words. I think what it is useful to do is to figure out how to stem the bloodshed and make democracy a reality of life for the people of Iraq, because that's what they want.
Q Tony, I'm staying with the subject, but I want to jump back to yesterday's news. Obviously, the President met with the Secretary General of the United Nations. You said it would be a social occasion --
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q -- but I don't think it's conceivable they didn't talk about Iraq. My question to you is, since you are interested in international support for your policy, is there a possibility that the U.N. might play a role at this late stage in at least deliberating what's happening in --
MR. SNOW: If you take a look, U.N. support is always welcome. Resolution 1441 obviously was something that laid down a marker for Saddam Hussein. But I don't know if there were any conversations about it last night. I was actually out with you guys. And the President was having a private party that does not get read out even to staff members. So I don't know what happened when it came to the dinner for Kofi Annan. But the Iraq Study Group has some recommendations also for positive U.N. action. You always want more support.
Now, what you have had is a series of very aggressive diplomatic efforts in the region, and they're going to continue. The United States -- the President has been talking with leaders in the region on a consistent basis. And I think what's interesting about this is it does give everybody a chance to step back and say, okay, let's stop thinking about this in a Democratic versus Republican lens, let's stop thinking about this in a George Bush-Nancy Pelosi-Jack Murtha sort of way.
Let us give the due to these senior statesmen in the Democratic and Republican parties who literally have set partisanship aside, trying to come up with what's best for the country, and let's ask ourselves a question: How does this measure up? Does this, in fact, meet the goals? How can this move us constructively forward not only in Iraq, but maybe also in the business of healing of bitter political divisions within the United States?
Q In a way, that's why I'm asking the question. You've had a lot of former critics of the war in Iraq, including Russia. So, again, at this late stage, why not step back and see what we might possibly do together? But I think you should ask for it. You need to suggest --
MR. SNOW: It is not as if this topic does not come up on a regular basis with leaders around the world. And it, no doubt, will continue to.
Sarah -- Venezuela.
Q Venezuela. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has been reelected for six more years. Will the President try to improve relations with Chavez?
MR. SNOW: Well, the one thing we do is we congratulate the Venezuelan people for having a successful democratic election. And they've made their decision. They're responsible for picking their leaders, and they have a right to participate in free and fair elections without fear of intimidation, and without real intimidation.
We remain committed to the Venezuelan people. We support their desire for a democratic future. We commend Manuel Rosales for the dignity he showed in the wake of the election. And we continue to seek a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government on areas of mutual interest.
I bet I know. Go ahead, Les.
Q You bet you know?
MR. SNOW: I bet I know.
Q Members of Congress, the Judiciary -- have been sworn in with a Bible since our nation began, including Jewish members, even though they don't subscribe to the New Testament. Now Congressman-elect Ellison of Minnesota has asked that he be sworn in with the Koran. And my question, the first of two: Does the President support this request, because he believes the Koran teaches nothing contrary to the freedoms in our Constitution? And if so, would he support the Book of Mormon being used to swear in LDS members of Congress if they ever ask for that?
MR. SNOW: That is an issue that the President does not need to adjudicate, and therefore, will not.
Q The New York Times reported -- and this is a quote -- "According to the account in The Hill" -- which is, as you know --
MR. SNOW: Is their newspaper, yes.
Q "According to the account in The Hill, Mr. Webb's initial instinct about how to respond to the President was to slug him." Were The New York Times and The Hill wrong to report this, because it never happened, or did it indeed happen?
MR. SNOW: We decided not to comment on that issue. What we had was --
Q That means it did happen.
MR. SNOW: No, it doesn't, because what it's talking about is a state of mind. There was no threat to slug the President, because I was standing that far from Jim Webb. But, beyond that, we are simply not going to comment. It was a reception to welcome new members of Congress; we congratulate all of them on their victories, and the rest of it we're just not going to play on.
Q Do you think that Webb was courteous?
MR. SNOW: I'm just not playing, Les.
END 1:55 P.M. EST