by Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor
A number of television journalists gathered for lunch with the president at the White House today -- a practice becoming more and more common when this president has a major speech to deliver. The following is a review of my notes, and is offered here under the ground rules established by the assembled White House senior aides. Vice President Cheney attended but did not speak.
As we now know, the speech tonight will amount to a full embrace of General Petraeus' recommendations. President Bush strongly insisted there was no White House guidance given to the General before he made his findings known. The president will announce the first of the troop withdrawals starting immediately (just over 2,000 Marines) though as a practical matter such things take time.
He will say the Iraqis are asking the United States to enter into discussions about its long-term presence in Iraq, and the president is known to favor a presence modeled -- at far fewer numbers of troops -- on that of U.S. forces in South Korea. He believes an American presence in Iraq is part of an overall Middle East policy and is aware of the view that many Americans have turned isolationist.
The president indicated, rather forcefully, that he is against a draft and doesn't feel pressure to draw down military forces based on the end of tours of duty coming due. He further indicated that if more troops were needed in Iraq (or anywhere else, for that matter), the Guard and Reserve numbers could be increased. The president is known to be following enlistment figures closely -- more important to him is RE-enlistment, based on his contention that it is a barometer of discontent in the military ranks.
The president was angered by the MoveOn.org advertisement questioning General Petraeus. He believes the ad was uncalled for and he used harsh language to describe his reaction. His emotion was fueled by his respect for the hard work, intellect and sacrifice of General Petraeus, and he indicated that while visiting Iraq recently, he warned Petraeus about the coming media glare and the importance being attached to his report in the United States.
He described the General in very glowing terms as a charismatic figure, but the president indicated the General's name shouldn't be attached to the plan because he, as commander-in-chief, takes responsibility for it. As he insisted today, any blame for failure goes to the president.
Notably, when asked about Robert Draper's new book, "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush" -- a portion of which deals with the disbanding of the Iraqi Army -- the president (who indicated he has not read the book) insisted there was no Iraqi Army left to re-constitute back at that time, saying most of Saddam's former fighters had been driven to the north where they fled and dispersed. I pointed out that this seemed like a new response; for four and a half years, the disbanding of the Army has been seen as one of the chief failings of the Iraq war. The president seemed un-bothered by that perception.
On Iran, the president indicated that future military action remains an option, and enumerated the incentives in existence to try to force a change in Iran's behavior. He further ran through the aspects of Iran's public behavior that the administration finds threatening and counterproductive.
On the management of the war, the president, as he has in the past, cited the travails of some of his predecessors in office. Today he talked about President Lincoln's struggles. He also indicated that he was very aware of how President Johnson (and Defense Secretary McNamara) conducted the war in Vietnam, including the minutiae of target selections in the same Oval Office President Bush now uses each day. He indicated more than once his distaste for public opinion polls. He admitted to being out-smarted by the enemy at several stages of the Iraq war, and spoke glowingly about the sacrifices of the military and of military families.
On the topic of Osama bin Laden, while the president indicated he was un-bothered by the latest video releases, he expects bin Laden to be found and killed by American hands.
Today's session with the president lasted close to one hour and 45 minutes. He made an informal opening statement which was followed by free-form questioning by the journalists in attendance.
I'm right now trying to insert the appropriate reporting of the above information into tonight's broadcast. Tim Russert, who was at the lunch, will join me tonight to assist in that effort.
Please read the biography of my friend Nick Oresko today, and I certainly hope you can join us for NBC Nightly News tonight. We'll be back on the air with the president's speech and the Democratic response tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time.