Bush seeks advice on new course in Iraq
Announcement on change in strategy expected before Christmas.
WASHINGTON -- President Bush, eager to show he can take advice on Iraq, embarked on a round of public outreach Monday and promised Americans the unpopular war eventually would make their lives safer.
Preparing for a major speech on the war's future, Bush took the short trip to the State Department to review options with advisers there, then hosted a handful of experts on Iraq policy in the Oval Office.
"Like most Americans, this administration wants to succeed in Iraq because we understand success in Iraq would help protect the United States in the long run," Bush said after his State Department briefing.
The White House remained tightlipped on how Bush is likely to change strategy, saying the president is awaiting reports from his national security team before announcing a plan to the nation. That is expected to happen before Christmas.
The president said his aim is to coordinate advice from his diplomatic and military advisers "so that when I do speak to the American people, they will know that I've listened to all aspects of government."
Indeed, the administration's "new way forward" includes a visible attempt to show an openness to ideas.
Today, Bush will meet via video conference with senior military commanders, then talk with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader, in the Oval Office. Bush met last week with the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq's parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.
On Wednesday, Bush will confer with senior defense officials at the Pentagon.
Since the election, lawmakers of both parties have been to the White House to discuss the war with Bush.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said he saw no "gigantic difference" in the pace of public strategy sessions on the president's schedule. But he added that Bush's travels to the State Department and the Pentagon sent a message.
"It's important that the American people be aware both of his consultation and his level of concern about getting it right," Snow said.
More than 2,900 U.S. military members have died in Iraq. The war has weighed down the Bush presidency and helped shift control of Congress to the Democrats, who have long accused Bush of being stubborn and isolated.
The administration has rejected calls for troop withdrawals until Iraq can govern and defend itself, warning that retreat could create a haven for terrorists and kill a fledgling democracy.
"I don't think he's looking for an easy answer. He's looking for the right answer. And the right answer isn't one person's idea," said Republican strategist Ron Kaufman, who worked in the White House under Bush's father.
"If some retired general or some historian can add to the final solution, then he's doing the right thing," Kaufman said.
At the State Department, Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her senior advisers on Iraq, and with diplomats who serve as leaders of U.S. joint civilian-military units called provincial reconstruction teams.
The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, participated by videoconference. "It was a good give and take," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"The president had questions throughout the entire set of briefings."
Afterward, Bush delivered a statement but took no questions in the Treaty Room, with Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney standing behind him. Looming behind them all were portraits of two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger -- both members of a bipartisan commission that has bluntly told Bush his Iraq policy is not working.
Bush's public remarks echoed his previous statements and gave no indication of any change of strategy.
Later, he sought advice from Stephen Biddle of the Council of Foreign Relations, Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies and three retired Army generals: Wayne Downing, Jack Keane and Barry McCaffrey.
Snow said Bush hoped to be able to announce his decisions by Christmas but that the timing could slip. "It's something that we would like to see, but I'm not going to promise it," Snow said.
AP Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this story.