Bush was upbeat on Iraq even when fearing failure

CRAWFORD, Texas Fri Apr 11, 2008 4:26pm EDT

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks about the war in Iraq from the White House in Washington April 10, 2008. After a contentious debate in Congress on Iraq, Bush on Thursday defended his war policy, which will leave resolution of the costly and unpopular conflict to his successor. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks about the war in Iraq from the White House in Washington April 10, 2008. After a contentious debate in Congress on Iraq, Bush on Thursday defended his war policy, which will leave resolution of the costly and unpopular conflict to his successor.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Friday he was worried in 2006 that the United States would fail in Iraq but stated publicly at the time that it was winning because he needed to maintain morale.

"I was worried. Look, I'm worried any time it looks like we're going to fail in Iraq," Bush said during an ABC News interview at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was spending the weekend with family.

Bush, due to leave office in January 2009 after the U.S. presidential election in November, said he became worried about a U.S. failure when violence spiked in Iraq in mid-2006 and he began to seek out opinions on what to do.

He ultimately decided to boost troop levels by 30,000 in 2007 in a so-called "surge."

"I thought it was failing, yes, I did," Bush said.

Asked why he was telling the American public at the time that U.S. forces were winning, Bush said: "I think if you'd go through the -- kind of fully analyze my statements, I was also saying 'The fighting is very tough.'"

Pressed to justify his upbeat public assessments at the time, he added: "That's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as -- look, you can't have the commander-in-chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either 'It's not worth it' or 'You're losing.' I mean, what does that do for morale?"

"I'm the commander-in-chief of the military as well obviously as, you know, somebody who speaks to the country," he said. "And if you look at my remarks, they were balanced. They weren't Pollyannaish."

Despite mounting violence, Bush gave upbeat assessments throughout the summer of 2006, saying as late as October 11: "It's my responsibility to provide the American people with a candid assessment on the way forward ... Absolutely, we're winning."

He began to temper his public remarks later that month, saying on October 25: "We're not winning, we're not losing."

By December 19, 2006, he was telling The Washington Post: "The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people -- and it is unacceptable to me."

Through that period, Bush was also warning that violence in Iraq was not going to stop overnight and the fighting would be tough but that the United States would "stay the course."

He had to modify that position in October 2006, saying: "Stay the course means keep doing what you're doing. My attitude is don't do what you're doing if it's not working -- change. Stay the course also means don't leave before the job is done. We're going to get the job done in Iraq."

The "surge" helped stabilize Iraq and casualties were sharply reduced, allowing the extra combat forces to be withdrawn, a process due to be completed in July with the force back to about 140,000 troops.

Bush announced on Thursday that, on the advice of his field commander, there would then be a hold on further reductions in troops until at least the fall, when further cuts would depend on the security situation.

Democrats and other critics say the build-up did not achieve its main goal because Iraqi leaders have failed to take the opportunity to create political reconciliation and there is still no strategy for ending the war, now in its sixth year.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and John O'Callaghan)