Bush parries pressure to change course on Iraq

Sunday, December 3, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has walked a fine line between embracing the mission of a bipartisan, high-profile advisory panel on Iraq and maintaining enough distance not to be bound by all -- or even most -- of its upcoming recommendations.

This week, the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group presents Bush with its suggestions for a new way forward in the increasingly messy and unpopular war. Hopes went sky-high that the commission has devised a winning prescription for the beleaguered U.S. effort, now well into its fourth year with violence not abating.

Expectations rose in part because two of Washington's most respected graybeards lead the group: Bush family loyalist James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission that produced a gold-standard report on fighting terrorism.

Aware the study group could recommend some bitter prescriptions, the White House has indicated it will take the advice seriously but not accept it automatically. The president says the report will be only one of many he will consider and still insists that American troops should stay in Iraq until the country can take care of itself.

"We are not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq," press secretary Tony Snow said in October when questions began arising about the panel.

Since then, Bush has ordered examinations of Iraq policy throughout the administration, anchored by a review of military options by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush has heard his team's consolidated but still-incomplete conclusions and is expected to get the final report in about two weeks.

Last week, the president portrayed his meeting in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as part of conducting his own due diligence. Continuing that effort, Bush meets on Monday with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament. Next month, Bush will see Iraq's Sunni vice president.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, emphasized that the White House will not "shoot from the hip" following the study group's Wednesday presentation. Do not expect an immediate response, Hadley said, but one probably weeks off.

Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy scholar at the Brookings Institution whom the Iraq Study Group consulted, said Bush's parallel maneuvers are not merely attempts to get in front of what may be unpleasant options.

The independent panel took stock of current, smart thinking on Iraq across a broad spectrum. But, O'Hanlon said, it did not do the detailed digging necessary to craft the sort of radical changes needed to turn the tide in Iraq -- meaning Bush can go a different direction without too much cost.

"Many got their expectations too high," O'Hanlon said.

Bush's traditional pattern is also at work as he considers how to handle the 100 pages of advice -- all nonbinding -- he is about to receive.

He often strenuously resists outside recommendations for action, then pivots to embrace them as his own when pressure becomes irresistible.

The president opposed creation of the Sept. 11 commission in the first place, as well as the establishment of a catchall Homeland Security Department. Bush later changed his mind on both points, and ran campaigns on putting in place that commission's recommendations, and against Democrats who balked at the way he wanted to structure the Homeland Security behemoth.

"He believes that his best chance of getting closer to what he wants is to do it this way," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who long has studied the Bush family. "What he wants now is to be perceived as still in charge and not pushed into receivership by a group of wise heads."

Seeking to shift Iraq policy more toward diplomacy, for instance, the panel is expected to call for direct pleas for help from Iran and Syria.

Bush remains cool to that idea, publicly and privately. Those Iraq neighbors are the United States' most vexing rivals in the Middle East and two countries that the U.S. has blamed for destabilizing Iraq and fomenting global terrorist activity.

So in recent days, the White House undertook a pre-emptive flurry of Iraq-focused diplomacy with Mideast nations considered friends, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. At the same time, the in-house review is considering reducing the administration's role as a middleman in some of the most contentious fights between Iraq's fractious sectarian and political factions, say officials familiar with the process.

The Baker commission also will endorse a phased withdrawal of troops, perhaps beginning early next year and not conditioned on progress by Iraqi security forces, according to officials familiar with the group's deliberations. The U.S. force posture could be changed -- focused less on front-line fighting and more on support and intelligence.

Bush has rejected any American military drawdown before Iraqi security forces are capable. But the panel is not expected to urge a timetable. Because that is not directly at odds with the president's position, it could give him cover to accept some sort of redeployment.

"He's positioning it so he has the opportunity to take it a la carte, or more if he wants," said Frederick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Buchanan predicted Bush would "grab the things he can accept and portray that as being cooperative."

The president will have to hope that works.

Otherwise, restive Democrats, who won control of Congress in last month's elections in large part because of public dissatisfaction with the war, could try to force him into a specific timeline for troops to come home.

"Redeployment is now the accepted next step" in both parties, said Ivo Daalder, a White House national security aide in the Clinton administration. "So he's pretty alone in saying we should not redeploy."

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