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Archive for Thursday, December 7, 2006

Will Bush heed advice?

Panel gives recommendations on salvaging Iraq

December 7, 2006

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The question now is whether President Bush will listen.

The Iraq Study Group delivered an unmistakable message Wednesday: Change the course in Iraq.

Bush can be a stubborn man, proud of his reputation for decisiveness and commitment to what he sees as principle, but he's shifted gears before in response to political pressure, though never on an issue of such magnitude.

The release of the panel's 142-page report was the latest in a series of events that are testing the president's commitment to an increasingly unpopular war. His poll numbers remain dismal. Last month's elections rebuked his leadership as much as his party. The ousters of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton underscored the ebbing power of the "neoconservatives" who backed the war in Iraq. Even incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was confirmed for his new job Wednesday, concedes that the United States isn't winning there.

The bipartisan group's report leaves Bush more politically isolated than ever.

"Now the president has the ball in his court," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "And we're going to be watching very closely."

While the president reserved judgment on the report, it essentially repudiates his entire Middle East policy. It called for withdrawing nearly all American combat troops by early 2008, precisely the kind of timetable that he's denounced repeatedly. It presses for direct U.S. talks with Syria and Iran. And it endorses much more U.S. pressure on Israel to reach a peace with Palestinians.

New direction

White House critics said the report marked a fundamental shift in the national debate over Iraq. It "moved the center of debate from whether we should leave to when and how," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We may have turned the corner," agreed Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an advocate for withdrawing U.S. troops. "If the president recognizes the urgent need for a new direction in Iraq, we'll see it happen soon."

Bush has reversed course before. He embraced creating the Homeland Security Department only after opposing it initially. He supported making airport security a federal government function after first saying it would be left to private companies. He opposed forming the independent Sept. 11 commission, but later accepted it.

Perhaps most telling, he reluctantly withdrew his nomination of his longtime loyalist Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in the face of strong opposition.

But those were minor skirmishes compared with the stakes in Iraq. Bush repeatedly has described the conflict as the central front in the war on terrorism. It's the centerpiece of his presidency; history will measure his legacy by what happens there.

Trying to stand ground

Bush could reverse course, but to date he's opposed some of the commission's ideas. He's said he won't talk to Syria and Iran about stabilizing Iraq. He opposes anything resembling a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. He's rejected firm milestones for progress by the Iraqi government. And he's said repeatedly that he intends to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to achieve his goals. He couldn't have been more emphatic than he was only last week, when he said:

"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the (Iraqi) government wants us there," he said at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

Bush made it clear even as he accepted the commission's recommendations that he doesn't feel bound by them.

"We probably won't agree with every proposal," he told commission members at a White House meeting.

Still, some of the commission's ideas fit with Bush's approach. While the panel concluded that "current U.S. policy is not working," it endorsed the president's goal of an Iraq that can "govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself."

The panel also supported the strategy of trying to shift responsibility from American troops to Iraqi security forces; it just wants the process accelerated. The report also suggests that the Pentagon consider a short-term increase in troop strength to help Iraqis take over - before starting to withdraw next year.

Meanwhile, the administration has policy reviews of its own under way and plans to review those at the end of the year.

Bush said he'd consider all the Iraq Study Group recommendations and would work with Congress toward a consensus strategy. But he doesn't plan to offer a new way forward until he receives Iraq policy reviews from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

Specific proposals

The Iraq Study Group's report did not mince words on Bush's Iraq policies, saying they had led that nation to the brink of collapse and that there was no guarantee it could be fixed.

Commissioners were equally blunt at times in portraying themselves as throwing a sort of lifeline to Bush that he would ignore at his own peril.

"The current approach is not working," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the panel with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime Bush family friend.

The panel called on Bush to launch a major new Middle East "diplomatic offensive" initiative by the end of the month, including talking to Iran and Syria and tackling the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

It urges Bush to threaten withholding aid from the already feeble Iraqi government if it can't live up to security and other benchmarks. And the panel would increase four-fold the number of U.S. troops training and advising Iraq forces, to about 15,000.

That would allow U.S. combat forces to start pulling back from the fight and even leaving over the next 15 months, the report said - a significant shift from their current front-line duties around Iraq, where 10 American soldiers died just Wednesday.

Bush has previously rejected some of those proposals, saying as recently as last week that he's not looking for a "graceful exit" with a timeline.

Yet the White House has been sending broad signals that Bush is open to changes, within reason, after voters punished Republicans for the Iraq war. Bush himself held up a copy of the report and promised serious responses in a "timely fashion" - probably before the end of the year.

Already, there were early hints Wednesday that the White House might try to finesse its response by simply saying Bush is already doing some of what the panel recommended.

Spokesman Tony Snow took pains Wednesday not to label any of the 79 recommendations dead-on-arrival and even suggested broadly that one of the most controversial - talks with axis-of-evil members Iran and Syria - could be done through a regional conference, like the one Iraq leaders already are planning.

White House officials also seized on the panel's decision not to set a hard and fast timetable for troop withdrawals - with Bush counselor Dan Bartlett calling the panel's 2008 goal "conditions-based," the very term Bush has long used to describe his own thinking on troop withdrawals. The panel set the goal of bringing out troops "subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground."

Bush also could say he already was trying to train Iraqi forces and welcomed additional troops and money to do it.

Giving up goals

Longtime Bush family adviser Charles Black insisted that Bush hasn't changed his fundamental goals for Iraq, "but if there's a lot of different things you have to do tactically, he's open to that."

Nevertheless, that would require Bush to all but give up on one of his major goals in launching the war, creating an Iraqi democracy that would transform the Middle East - a goal that is nowhere to be found in the Iraq Study Group report.

Nor is the word "victory."

"It's a dramatic scaling-back of American objectives," said Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations. "To me this report is more about the United States getting out with its hide than it is about attaining any of the original objectives."

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