Tony Snow on Iraq, or how "winning" is the same as "not winning"

"It's a pretty dynamic situation."

By Tim Grieve
Published December 6, 2006 8:50PM (EST)

A reporter asked George W. Bush in October if the United States is winning the war in Iraq. "Absolutely, we're winning," the president said. "We're winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done."

A senator asked Robert Gates Tuesday if the United States is winning in Iraq. "No, sir," he said.

The report of the Iraq Study Group doesn't use words like "winning" or "losing" when it comes to the war in Iraq, but it's pretty clear that the group would put the United States' efforts in the "L" column now if it weren't so busy being politely politic. The situation in Baghdad and several provinces is "dire," the group says, and "there is no guarantee for success in Iraq."

We'll be waiting to see how the White House explains away that conclusion as consistent with what it has been saying all along. In the meantime, we'll be marveling at the way in which press secretary Tony Snow tried Tuesday to harmonize Gates' statement with Bush's.

Reporter: When Bob Gates says that we're not winning the war in Iraq, you don't see a major difference [between that and what the president has said]?

Snow: Well, if you listen to what Bob Gates said -- he later was asked by Sen. Inhofe, do you agree with Gen. Pace that we're neither winning nor losing? If you listen to what Bob said, what did he say? He said the goal is an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror. He said, this is a time for bipartisanship, as we had during the Cold War. This is a time for shared national commitment. He said that the only way we lose is if we lose the will to continue and to complete the mission. He also noted that if we did not complete the mission, I believe he said that there would be -- what did he say -- regional cataclysm, I think, was the phrase he used; that was the danger. So he talked about very clear dangers, but also very clear promise.

What you saw is somebody who clearly shares the president's view on this and the president's goals, but is also going to go in and take a fresh look. He did not presume to have complete knowledge of the operational issues, said that one of the first things he would do upon becoming secretary of defense, should he be confirmed by the Senate, is to go out to the region and talk to people and go to Iraq. So I look at that, and it seems to me that it's very consistent with the approach the president has been taking.

Reporter: Can I just also come back to what Steve was asking about. Gates was asked an up-or-down question, is the United States winning --

Snow: Right, and then he was asked a follow-up question, as well.

Reporter: Yes, I understand that. But he did say -- "Are we winning?" His answer was, "No." The last time the president was asked, it was, "Absolutely, yes."

Snow: What I would suggest is, number one, I know that you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president. It doesn't exist. Read the full testimony and you'll see.

The second thing is that it is really important to realize that there's a lot of stuff going on. I've already referred to a couple of them. You've got the prime minister moving aggressively on a number of fronts, in terms of building Iraqi capabilities. He's dealing on a regional basis with his neighbors. He is talking about a reconciliation conference this month. There has been also a great deal of work on the Iraqi economy.

You look at what Mr. al-Hakim said yesterday -- and, again, just run through some of the things he was talking about in the speech. The first thing he talked about is the fact that there's a democracy in Iraq, and that this is something that is an incredible and important difference. But he also said that, number one, you need to conclude joint security agreements with neighboring countries in the region. That was his first priority. He said, number two, enforce our borders and stop infiltration into Iraq. That, obviously, has to do, at a bare minimum, with Syria and Iran. Number three, enforce the Iraqi security apparatus by equipping them with the needed capabilities and movements within the law. Number four, implement the anti-terrorism law. Number five, our arms should be limited to the hands of government forces. And later on he said the country should be clear of militias. He talked about [providing] our national support to the current government to assist it in fighting terrorism. Number seven, diplomatic exchange with neighboring countries. Eight, trade exchange to rebuild and improve Iraqi services, and achieve national reconciliation. You put all that together, and what you have is an Iraqi government that is also very actively engaged in trying to build the capability. So there are a lot of things going on here.

[We might observe here that Snow omitted "number six." But we digress.]

Reporter: If the president were asked that same question today, would he say, "Absolutely, yes"?

Snow: I'm not going to tell you what the president would say, but you can look at the president's answer and you can look at Bob Gates. What I would also suggest, though, is you take a look at the Gates testimony, and you see if that's consistent with what we've been talking about, because what you're going to try to take is that one little question, rather than taking a fuller look at --

Reporter: These are questions that Americans typically ask.

Snow: That's right, but the other question that Americans might want to ask is, is it a static situation, and do you see progress on the part of the Iraqis, and do you see a concerted effort on their part to be serious about winning and governing? That's an important thing too, and it's also important to note that the Iraqis --

Reporter: Tony, does --

Snow: I'll finish here in a moment. It's not a filibuster, but I'm trying to wrap up the answer -- that, in fact, you see also the increased willingness and success in actions, for instance, against al-Qaida in Anbar and also within Baghdad. There are a lot of things going on. So when you ask a steady state question, you're trying to treat it as a portrait in an unchanging situation. In fact, it's a pretty dynamic situation. There are a lot of things going on, a lot of things that the Iraqis themselves say give them heart and confidence and determination. They know something.

Reporter: Does the president today believe that we are winning in Iraq? It's a very straightforward question.

Snow: I know, but I did not ask him the question today. The most recently asked, he said, "Yes."

Reporter: OK, so that might change from day to day. So it may have changed --

Snow: No, I don't --

Reporter: He may no longer believe that we're winning the war in Iraq. You don't know.

Snow: I have no reason to think it changed, but also, again, go back and take a look at the broader answer that Bob Gates gave and ask yourself, is this consistent or inconsistent with what the president has been saying? I think you're going to find it's very consistent.

Reporter: Why is it consistent if he said -- he said we're neither winning nor losing. He didn't say we were winning.

Snow: Then he proceeded to talk about the very challenges the president has been discussing in terms of developing capability on the Iraqi side of an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself. So what you may have are two guys who are looking at different definitions. I don't know. I don't want to try to read their minds. But what I do think is important in taking a full look at what Bob Gates was doing is then to take a look at when he started drilling down. What did he talk about? Precisely the same things that the president has been discussing for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Reporter: Even though it was precisely the same thing, he said, we are not winning, and --

Snow: No, he said -- I believe the answer was either "yes, sir" or "no, sir."

Reporter: And then he went into the fact that "but we're not losing." But this administration has said we are winning. Leading up to the midterm elections, President Bush was asked pointedly at his press conference, are we winning? He said, yes, we're winning, and he went on to explain why. He explained why we're not winning. You from this podium said --

Snow: No, I don't believe -- what Bob Gates -- I don't believe that Bob Gates said that we were --

Reporter: He supported his statement. And you from that --

Snow: But how did he support it? Did he support the statement by saying anything that was inconsistent with what the president has said? I don't think he did.

Reporter: But his statement is inconsistent with what the administration says. The president has said, "We are winning." You from that podium said, "We're winning -- "

Snow: Right.

Reporter: But we haven't won.

Snow: Right.

Reporter: He said -- he agreed that we are not winning. So how is that consistent --

Snow: And he also said we're not losing.

Reporter: But how is that consistent? The president never said, "We're not losing." How is that consistent?

Snow: Because -- OK, because they may have -- I don't know what the definitions are, April. That's why, I think, if you want guidance, you take a look at the broader [answers]. If you want to take a look at one question or two questions asked by senators and ignore the bulk of hours of public testimony, you are free to do so. But if you want to try to get a nuance to full understanding of where Bob Gates stands on these issues with regard to the president and his policies and the definition of what it is to win in Iraq and what it takes, then I think you're going to find that there is -- that he agrees and also that he is committed to the mission. That's what the bulk of today is about. That's what the bulk of --

Reporter: You seem to be describing Gates as having literally no daylight between him and the president on the overall --

Snow: Well, obviously, there was a difference on that answer.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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