Reporting the President’s Press Conference

President Bush did an excellent job in his press conference yesterday; among other things, he vigorously and effectively defended our progress in Iraq and the accomplishments of his administration during its second term. The transcript of the press conference is here.

So what are the newspaper headlines this morning? Washington Post: “Bush Says U.S. Troops Will Stay in Iraq Past ’08”. Washington Times: “Bush Commits Until 2009”. Associated Press: “Bush: Troops to Stay in Iraq for Years”. The New York Times’ headline was even more negative: “Bush Concedes Iraq War Erodes Political Status”, but its first sentence didn’t miss the 2009 opportunity:

President Bush said Tuesday that the war in Iraq was eroding his political capital, his starkest admission yet about the costs of the conflict to his presidency, and suggested that American forces would remain in the country until at least 2009.

What, exactly, did Bush say that made this the most newsworthy item to come out of the press conference? Here is the exchange:

[M]y question is, one, is there a point at which having the American forces in Iraq becomes more a part of the problem than a part of the solution? Can you say that you will not keep American troops in there is they’re caught in a crossfire and a civil war? And can you say to the American people — assure them that there will come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

BUSH: The decisions about our troop levels will be made by General Casey and the commanders on the ground. They’re the ones who can best judge whether or not the presence of coalition troops create more of a problem than a solution — than be a part of the solution.

***

QUESTION: It was: Will there come a day — and I’m not asking you when; I’m not asking for a timetable — will there come a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?

BUSH: That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.

QUESTION: So it won’t happen on your watch?

BUSH: You mean a complete withdrawal? That’s a timetable.

I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.

What we mainly have here is Bush’s oft-stated refusal to make decisions about troop levels based on politically-inspired timetables. No news there. Beyond that, the likelihood that some American troops may be in Iraq as of 2009–the question was framed in terms of “no more American forces”–is hardly a news flash, either. We still have troops in Germany, more than 60 years after the end of World War II. We still have troops in the Balkans, as well. Neither of these deployments is controversial.

Iraq may well be seen as a desirable place to station troops for a considerable length of time. Whether such a longer-term deployment is controversial will depend on how many troops remain in Iraq and, more important, what they are doing there. If the fighting is essentially over and soldiers are not being lost, no one will care about the presence of troops in Iraq, any more than they object to the presence of troops in Germany.

In truth, this was one of the less newsworthy exchanges in yesterday’s press conference. But, because it suited most journalists’ yearning for a quagmire, it became the lead in newspapers all across America.

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