September song

Tony Snow on Gen. Petraeus' assessment and the importance of the "present imperfect."

Published June 13, 2007 8:06PM (EDT)

In an interview with Reuters' Steve Holland on May 22, George W. Bush argued against the need for a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq by insisting that we'll all know so much more once Gen. David Petraeus reports back on the surge in September. "Let's just see what he has to say," Bush said.

Holland: But do you see September as a make-or-break period?

Bush: I see it as an important moment, because David Petraeus says that's when he'll have a pretty good assessment as to what the effect of the surge has been.

Fast-forward to today's White House press briefing.

Reporter: Tony, whenever you or the president or anyone in the administration is asked about assessing how the surge is going, you point out not everyone's there yet, it's going to take a while, 30 to 60 days. Are we going to see any softening of this September deadline for a pivotal assessment on how this is going?

Tony Snow: You call it a "pivotal assessment." There are going to be regular assessments of what goes on, what has been going on in Iraq. And I think, in September, you will have the first opportunity to have a little bit of a metric to see what happens when you have all the forces in place for the Baghdad security plan. I mean, that, I think -- but if you want a definitive judgment, I have warned from the very beginning about expecting some sort of magical thing to happen in September ... At that juncture, you're going to be able to have a little more granularity, as they say.

Reporter: What is a realistic time frame for some time to go thumbs up or thumbs down on whether this is worth it anymore?

Snow: The cause of Iraqi democracy is worth it ...

Reporter: ... It sounds like you're laying the groundwork for September to be recharacterized. I mean, it's been my impression that it is a critical moment of measure. The president seemed to accept such a reading the last time he did a news conference. Are you saying, now, "not so much" on September?

Snow: If you go back and look at my comments, I've always warned against looking upon this as some great -- you know, some great moment ... In a time of war, things happen gradually. What you are looking for are firm metrics about what is going on. And it is naive to think, suddenly -- boom! -- you snap a finger and you've got an instant change in the situation.

On the other hand, it's going to be fair to ask, what has the Baghdad security plan accomplished? What has it done in terms of security within Baghdad? How has it affected al-Qaida? And furthermore, what is going on in some of the other areas which are going to be critical: political progress, economic progress, and all those things? Because, while we tend to talk a lot about the military component, it is far more comprehensive than that.

So what I would suggest is, rather than it's, sort of, a pivotal moment, it is the first opportunity to be able to take a look at what happens when you've got it up and running fully for a period of months, probably a couple of months. And people then can draw judgments about how best to proceed.

Reporter: Tony ... in the interview with Reuters a couple of weeks ago, the president, I believe, used the phrase "critical moment" for September. Now you're saying it's not a pivotal moment. I mean, you don't seem on the same page with the president on that one.

Snow: No, I will let the president do the characterizations. I'm just worried -- I think why he's talking about a critical moment is because it allows people, again, to take a look at what's happened with the security plan. You know, we have a lot of people saying, "The plan hasn't worked." And it's not even fully implemented. So I think we're parsing a little bit here. What I'm saying is, if you were looking for a report that says, "OK, it's all -- the job's all done; we're complete," you're not going to find that in September. What you are going to find is, you know -- attach preferred adjective here -- you are going to have an opportunity to take a look at the metrics of what has happened, in terms of not only what's gone on with U.S. forces but also Iraqi forces, Iraqi police, provisional reconstruction teams, political progress, economic progress, all of those things. And that's an absolutely legitimate thing for everybody to look for.

Reporter: Can you attach an adjective here?

Snow: No, I try to stay out of the adjectival business.

Reporter: The president himself has said, not just in the Reuters interview but in others, that in September we will find out whether it's working. He's been blunt about it.

Snow: Well, again, you'll be able to see what's going on at the juncture.

Reporter: It's not the president saying we'll be able to take a look and see a snapshot and see what's happening ... He has said, "We'll know whether it's working in September."

Snow: OK, but what I'm saying -- OK.

Reporter: Is that what you think?

Snow: No, I think my concern is that the expectation that seems to be raised is that suddenly, in September, there may be an expectation that the report says, "OK, all the problems are solved." No. But what will happen in September is that we will have an opportunity to assess what's going. Yes, we'll have an opportunity to say ... whether it is working. That does not mean that we'll have all the work. It will not be completely successful at that juncture. Is working where you have it in the motion of a present imperfect, I think, is fine. So ...

Reporter: Is it a moment, though, for judging -- I understand the difference between it's not going to be over then, but is it the right time to judge whether the new way forward is working?

Snow: Again, we'll see. We'll have to take a look. I just ...

Reporter: That sounds like backpedaling.

Snow: No, it's not backpedaling. It's just it seems to me to be such a vast, metaphysical question.

Reporter: But there is, wait a minute -- in this town -- hang on. In this town there is ...

Snow: I am hanging.

Reporter: ... No matter what side of this issue you're on in this camp, it has become a commonly accepted premise that in September there will be -- everyone who's asking, "When are you going to know? When are we going to know?"

Snow: Right.

Reporter: Everyone's been talking about September. It sounds like you are suggesting something entirely different right now.

Snow: No, I'm not. What I'm saying is, in September you'll have an opportunity to have metrics. I think what we have been saying is, you'll have an opportunity, at that juncture, to be able to do a sensible analysis of what happens when you've got all the forces in place for the Baghdad security plan. Now, what's going to happen is that some people are going to try to make the argument, if the job is not done and if they haven't perfected it and if they haven't achieved all the ifs, then it's a failure. I wanted to guard against that, because I do think that there's an attempt ...

Reporter: Why [try] to inoculate it?

Snow: No, I don't think it -- no, because this is not inoculation.

Snow: It is humanly impossible to solve all this before September, all right? Well, no. But I think what happens is -- no, I do think -- no, I do think sometimes in the political framework -- please, one at a time. And let me continue to talk.

I worry that sometimes people are trying to overhype this so that they're going to try to say, "It all has to be resolved." So let me just try to say, no, we are not backing away from anything. Yes, you will have an opportunity to see whether it is working. And we will have an opportunity also to judge, you know, how various programs are succeeding in terms of the economic piece, the military piece and so on.

Reporter: But, Tony, more importantly, if it isn't working, is it time to reevaluate the current strategy?

Snow: What happens every day, as you know -- because you've covered the Pentagon -- is that you reevaluate the strategy constantly. And as we have always said, you try to respond to facts on the ground. For instance, you know, there may be deployment decisions that people would have made on a chart several months ago where you're going to move forces around in a different way within Baghdad or you're going to deploy to Diyala or whatever the case may be. So in point of fact, you are always adjusting, with the ultimate aim of trying to succeed.

And I think rather than my trying to make characterizations about not merely what Gen. Petraeus but also Amb. Crocker are going to report, let's just see what they have. And, obviously, we're going to have interim assessments and we're going to continue to try to make data available to people so that they can get a fuller sense of what's going on ...

Reporter: But, Tony, it's -- by its definition a "surge" is supposed to be relatively short term, right, not on and on and on. If you just have, like, a mini-report card in September and say, "We need another six months, we need another six months," it's no longer a surge, right?

Snow: If you take a look at what [the] Baker-Hamilton [commission said], a surge is not, sort of, in and out. What you do is you bring forces to bear and you try to finish the job.

Reporter: But then doesn't it become an escalation, as the Democrats said at the beginning of the surge? They said if you don't -- why are you rolling your eyes ...

Snow: Oh, my goodness.

Reporter: Hold on a second. At the beginning, a surge -- the idea was a temporary increase to stabilize things ...

Snow: ... Yes, it will be a temporary increase. But on the other hand, when we get to September, those forces will have been -- all those forces together will have been in-theater less than three months.

Snow: So you need to ...

Reporter: [Some of them have been] there since February ...

Snow: February, yes. But the point is -- yes ... yes, I know, but I'm saying -- you talk about the surge. The surge is not an overnight thing. As you've just pointed out, it takes more than four months to get forces in-theater. It takes another couple of months to get them fully integrated in-theater. And therefore what we're saying, now that you got all the forces in place, you know, really by -- some of these forces will not be fully integrated until July or August. So what you're going to get is a preliminary look, where you are going to be able to have some metrics about how it works when you got all the pieces in place.

By Tim Grieve

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

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