A traveling road show on Iraq

The spin from Air Force One.

Published March 8, 2007 9:01PM (EST)

Tony Snow pushed away reporters who asked Wednesday about the possibility of a pardon for Scooter Libby, saying that he would "caution against any speculation in this case." But when reporters asked today about a future event that's at least equally as "speculative" -- the prospect that the House and the Senate might agree on legislation setting a timetable for the end of the war in Iraq -- the White House had no trouble getting the comment machine going.

During a press gaggle aboard Air Force One, White House counselor Dan Bartlett vowed that the president would "vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looked like" what Nancy Pelosi described today -- even as he acknowledged that he didn't really know all the details that such legislation might include. Tony Snow chimed in that the Democrats were playing a "game of charades" with Iraq -- and "the chief aim of Democratic leaders was to get Democrats happy, rather than [to address] the more important goal of providing the funding and flexibility generals need to succeed in their mission in Iraq."

The White House even had National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley on hand -- no "senior administration officials" here! -- to talk about all the "encouraging signs" and "encouraging indications" that he's seeing on the ground in Iraq, at least insofar as he can see them from a 747 bound for Brazil.

Hadley used his turn before the press to rewrite some history on the size of the Bush "surge." When he announced his escalation plan, the president said only that he was sending "more than 20,000" additional troops to Iraq. But a senior administration official told reporters that the "surge" would involve "somewhere in the 21,000-22,000 total." Since then, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has acknowledged that 6,000 to 7,000 more troops will be needed in addition to the combat troops, and the Pentagon has approved a request to send in an additional 2,400 military police -- a request Defense Secretary Robert Gates has described as "a new requirement by a new commander."

By our math, that takes the size of the surge to somewhere around 30,000. But when a reporter asked Hadley about an original estimate of 21,500, he insisted today that the White House pretty much had it right all along.

"It was an accurate estimate of the combat troops that were going into Baghdad," he said. "That's what the president talked about. He said that there would be five brigades that would be going into Baghdad. He talked about 22,000-23,000 troops, something like that, the bulk of which would be going into Baghdad." Hadley said that the fact that the "surge" will be larger than originally advertised "is not unexpected. It's about the right size of how we're coming in and the fact that, as [Gen. David Petreaus] says, he's got a plan, we're executing the plan; as you get into the execution of the plan, you learn a lot, conditions change and you make adjustments, and that's what we're going to be doing. But, you know, again, we're in the early stages at this point."

That's exactly what we're afraid of.

By Tim Grieve

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

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