EXCLUSIVE: Bush Says Petraeus' Timeline for Troop Drawdown Not Open-Ended

President Also Says He Will Attend Olympics to Support Athletes

By STEPHANIE SMITH and NITYA VENKATARAMAN

April 11, 2008—

President Bush today dialed back on what appeared to be an open-ended time frame for Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, to assess troop needs once the surge is complete at the end of July.

"Sometimes people read what they want to in the president's words," Bush said in an exclusive interview with ABC's senior White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "My statement was, in essence, this: If Gen. Petraeus needs 45 days, he'll have 45 days."

Watch Martha Raddatz's interview with the president tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson" at 6:30 ET.

Thursday, in a speech on Iraq at the White House, Bush said Petraeus could "have all the time he needs."

Critics of the war, including both Democratic candidates, Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., took that statement as saying the president would not be drawing down forces in Iraq anytime soon.

"So you're not saying it would be just 45 days, or will it go beyond 45 days. You just don't know," Raddatz asked the president outside his office at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

"I don't know," Bush replied. "But on the other hand, I did say that my hope is that conditions will enable us to continue return on success."

Bush conceded earlier that before the surge began last year, he was pessimistic about the way the war in Iraq was going.

"How worried were you?" Raddatz asked.

"I was worried. Look, I'm worried any time it looks like we're going to fail in Iraq," Bush said.

During that time in 2006, when many were saying Iraq was in a full-blown civil war, Bush kept his rhetoric upbeat, saying in speeches that We're winning" and "We have a plan for victory."

Raddatz asked the president about that, and the president insisted he did it to keep up troop morale.

"That's as much to try and bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well -- you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing that either it's not worth it or you're losing. What does that do for morale?" Bush said.

The president said that since the surge, Iraq is on a course for political reconciliation, part of what the surge was supposed to accomplish. "I think you'll find that the government is functioning a lot better than it was a year ago. They had passed major laws. Yes, there needs to be an oil law, but they are sharing oil revenues. ??? They have made progress. And is there more to be done? You bet there's more to be done."

On Afghanistan, where commanders say they need an influx of at least 10,000 more troops, the president insists they will get those troops despite the strains on the military and the pressure to draw down forces in Iraq by the end of the year. Thursday the president announced that deployments will be cut down from 15 months to 12.

"How do you maintain that deployment schedule, send more troops to Afghanistan and keep 140,000 troops in Iraq? The math doesn't work," said Raddatz.

Bush credits NATO members, specifically France, which promised to send about 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan last week, as being part of the solution, as well as the 3,200 additional Marines the military is sending over.

"My purpose in going to the NATO summit was to convince others to bolster their presence, and they did. And you know, will we need more troops in 2009 [in Afghanistan]. I signaled that if that's the case, we'll find them," Bush said.

Bush to Attend Olympics

As pressure mounts for him to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, Bush said Friday he plans on attending the Olympics to support the athletes.

"My plans haven't changed," Bush said.

Later, the White House said Bush was speaking about his attendance at the games, not specifically the opening ceremony. The president's aides have been vague about when exactly he will attend.

The president, along with other Western leaders, has come under pressure to skip the ceremony in protest over China's human rights abuses, particularly in Tibet and Darfur. Bush said Friday he would continue to address human rights concerns with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Bush said the message his attending sends to the world is that he's "supporting our athletes."

"I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event," Bush continued, saying that he's brought up issues surrounding religious freedom and human rights abuses with China before the Olympics, and will continue to do so during and after.

Economic Concerns

With the American economy battling recession, Bush said he still considers himself a "good steward" of the economy but said he takes responsibility for where it is today.

Despite Democratic efforts in Congress for an additional economic stimulus package to boost the ailing economy, Bush won't consider a second package until the results of the first one, passed just last month, are evident, he said.