President Bush is so convinced that he's got the right policy in Iraq — and that it can succeed — that he rejects pleas from Capitol Hill moderates for a declared change of mission.
In an interview with a group of columnists that I attended Wednesday, he dismissed the notion of establishing the 2006 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group as official U.S. policy, even though its advocates think it's a lot like his policy and could bind the country together.
"My attitude is, I accept what (U.S. Iraq commander) Gen. (David) Petraeus recommended, not what they recommend," he said, referring to members of Congress pushing the ISG approach, which includes moving U.S. troops from a combat role to one of "overwatch."
Both Petraeus and Bush said last week that they envision a "transition" of mission toward "overwatch" — Bush said, beginning in December — but the president evidently wants to have a firm grip on the pace of change, even if it means missing an opportunity for achieving a consensus on Capitol Hill.
In addition to lengthy comments on Iraq policy, Bush said he was "incredulous, and then mad" about last week's MoveOn.org ad branding Petraeus "General Betray Us" and said he took it as "an attack on our troops."
"I expected people on Capitol Hill to say this was wrong," he said. "I didn't hear many," obviously meaning Democrats.
"That ad was uncalled for," he said. "And also the silence."
In a 90-minute session in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Bush also set the stage for veto battles over the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and possible tax increases and budget bills, and he waxed philosophical about what Americans should look for in a president.
"He should be comfortable with his family," Bush said. "Should be somebody who'll work hard to make sure there's love in the White House, have a vision for the world and principles by which they'd make decisions.
"I would suggest they look for somebody who doesn't worry about current public opinion polls — that's like a dog chasing its tail. I'd look for someone who'll enjoy this job. You can either be miserable in this job or joyous. I find it a joy."
If that's true — and Bush told us he was "upbeat about life" — he actually seemed more determined than euphoric in this session. He asserted that he was sustained by the conviction that soldiers in Iraq and their commanders believe in the mission there as much as he does.
He said, "I asked Gen. Petraeus, 'Can we succeed? If not, let's not continue. I am not going to look a mother in the eye who's lost her son and tell her something that's not true.' He said we could."
Asked what would constitute success, he listed reducing violence to "an acceptable level," achieving a self-sustaining government, an Iraqi military capable of keeping internal order and protecting its borders, an "Iraqi-style democracy" and an ally of the United States against extremism.
Asked if he thought success could be achieved by the time he left office, he said, "we'll be making progress" and mused that East Asian countries like South Korea had followed "an uneven path" but arrived at democracy.
"The same thing will happen in the Middle East," he said. He also reiterated his conviction that failure in Iraq would have disastrous consequences, including an Iran "emboldened to spread radical Shiism and develop nuclear weapons," destabilizing the region.
I asked him why he could not agree to proposals put forward by bipartisan groups of moderates like Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., to make the ISG recommendations national policy, especially in view of his own plans for a mission change.
One House moderate, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said that the ISG proposal — gradually removing U.S. troops from combat and giving them the mission to "train and aid" Iraqi forces — could achieve a bipartisan consensus akin to one Bush's father established leading to an end to conflict over Central America.
But Bush said he was determined to stick with the Petraeus schedule, tying troop withdrawals and mission changes to success on the ground. "The mission can change in different places, like Anbar, at a different rate than elsewhere," he said.
And he reiterated his opposition to the proposal of Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., to require troops be given as much rest time between Iraq tours as they serve in the combat zone.
"I don't like the idea of Congress determining troop rotations," he said.
Bush defended his plan to veto a bipartisan SCHIP bill on the grounds that "the tactics of those who favor nationalized health care is incrementalism."
"I care deeply about poor children," he said, but he charged that Congress was intent on expanding the program to families making more than $80,000 a year and encouraging them to abandon private insurance.
Bush also said he plans to confront Congress over the fact that "they've passed zero appropriations even though it's less than two weeks before the fiscal year ends."
And describing the process of picking his new attorney general nominee, Michael Mukasey, Bush underscored his determination to "protect the principle of executive privilege and the ability of the president to receive unfettered advice."
"If someone comes into the Oval Office," he said, "they should not have to say, 'let me check with my lawyer' before telling the president what they think."
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)