Tony Snow, body counts and "impressionistic answers"

What is George W. Bush doing, anyway?

By Tim Grieve
Published December 14, 2006 8:45PM (EST)

We know a little about what George W. Bush will be doing between now and whenever he gets around to announcing his new "way forward" in Iraq: He'll be attending a slew of holiday parties, and maybe he'll have time to make an appearance in a sequel to the "Barney's Holiday Extravaganza" video the White House put up the other day. At today's White House press briefing, reporters tried to get a better sense of what's keeping the president so busy between now and "way forward" day. They didn't succeed.

Reporter: 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?

Tony 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.

Reporter: 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 --

Snow: The president -- no, there's --

Reporter: Can you just give us a better sort of --

Snow: Unfortunately I can't. This is one of those where I'm forced to try to give impressionistic answers ...

On one subject, Snow did seem happy to give something other than an "impressionistic" answer. Although the president said back in October that his administration had made a "conscious effort not to be a body-count team," he listed the number of "enemy killed" in Iraq during an interview in November and did it again after meeting with military officials yesterday. Snow was asked about the change in course today. After saying, "I can't put [Bush] on the couch right now," Snow said that he thinks enemy body counts are "an important data point for Americans" because they need to know that U.S. troops are "fighting the bad guys."

A reporter asked Snow if the White House would like the American people to start judging the war based on "this many bad guys versus how many of us are killed." Snow's answer: "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."

Tim Grieve

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

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George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room