WASHINGTON - President Bush will ask Americans once again tonight for patience and sacrifice at war, but congressional leaders say their patience has run out and the U.S. military has sacrificed enough.
The president, facing the nation in a prime-time television speech, will explain a war strategy that claims limited but notable success with the "surge" in U.S. military forces that he first announced in January - when he asked Americans, in another televised address from the White House, for "patience, sacrifice and resolve."
He will cite the work of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who announced this week that he has recommended a scaling back of troops to "pre-surge" levels, drawing about 30,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq by the middle of July 2008.
Yet the Petraeus plan, soon to become the Bush plan, already faces a storm of criticism from Democratic congressional leaders who maintain that the administration's claims of improved security in Iraq are overstated.
But Democrats, lacking the votes to override the president, might have to settle for the redeployment that Petraeus has spelled out: withdrawing a combat brigade in December and four more over the course of early 2008, leaving a force of about 130,000 in place next summer - the same size force that the United States showed last January.
Democratic leaders warned this week that the White House is making an "open-ended commitment" to the war in Iraq that could leave a high profile of U.S. forces there well into the next decade.
The White House insists that the goal in Iraq remains the same: "victory," which Bush defines as an Iraq capable of maintaining its own security and sustaining its government.
"It's pretty clear that it is not a war without end," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday. "As a matter of fact, it is a war that actually has victory as its aim."
The White House's plan for "the way forward" in Iraq, like the plan announced in January, will remain contingent on conditions on the ground.
"The fact is, the numbers (of troops) will reflect realities on the ground," Snow said. "The realities on the ground, at least according to Gen. Petraeus, seem to be such that you can start drawing down numbers."
The White House has not confirmed the content of Bush's speech, but senators who have met with him privately say it is clear that he will present the Petraeus plan. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., saying the Democrats' patience with the war has run its course, added, "I listened to his responses to questions and whenever one of the members of Congress would question what Gen. Petraeus said, the president was very defensive."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a graduate of West Point, will give the Democratic response to Bush's televised address.
The president will campaign for his war policies Friday at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. And the administration's most fervent advocate of the war - Vice President Dick Cheney - will take the White House's case to key political battleground states Friday. Cheney will speak about "the global war on terror" at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., and deliver a speech at the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, acknowledged that the road ahead "is going to be a long, difficult process."
"There are no magic switches to flip in Iraq - not on reconciliation, not on the other hard issues," he said Wednesday at a news conference here, following two days of testimony on Capitol Hill. "There is a lot of frustration - that's frustration that we who are serving in Iraq are facing every day."
Petraeus, who testified alongside Crocker and joined him at the press conference, insisted that U.S. efforts have helped secure the western Iraqi province of Anbar and hold promise for the rest of the country. He also rejected arguments that the troop drawdown he recommended would have taken place in any event, as troops reach the end of their own already-extended, 15-month deployments in Iraq.
"I could very easily have requested ... replacements," Petraeus said. "We are coming out quicker than we had to. ... If you had run every brigade in Iraq (for 15 months) we would not have had to take one out until April. ... Yes, the surge forces were scheduled to go home between April and July, but ... I could have requested more surge forces."