Bush likely to spurn 'graceful exit' option

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality appears to be clear: Despite the Democrats' victory last month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are signaling that too rapid a U.S. pullout would open the way to all-out civil war, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group has shied away from recommending explicit timelines in favor of a vaguely timed pullback.

The report that the panel will deliver to President Bush next week would leave at least 70,000 in the country for a long time, to train the Iraqis and to ensure against the collapse of a desperately weak central government.

Even the Democrats, with an eye toward 2008, have dropped talk of a race for the exits, in favor of a brisk stroll. But that might be the only solace for Bush as he returns from a messy encounter with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Since the Nov. 7 election, the debate in Washington and much of the country appears to have turned away from Bush's oft-repeated insistence that the only viable option is to stay and fight smarter. The most talked-about alternatives include renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces to defend the government while preparing to pull U.S. combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, next year.

The message to Iraq's warring parties would be clear: Washington's commitment to making Iraq work is not open-ended.

But if Bush's words are taken at face value, those are options redolent of timetables. Standing next to al-Maliki yesterday morning in Amman, Jordan, Bush said Iraqis need not fear that he is looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq."

But a graceful exit - or even an awkward one - appears to be exactly what the Iraq Study Group, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, tried to design in the compromise reached by Republicans and Democrats on the panel Wednesday.

The question is whether Bush can be persuaded to shift course and whether he might be willing to define victory less expansively.

"What the Baker group appears to have done is try to change the direction of the political momentum on Iraq," said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. "They have made clear that there isn't a scenario for a democratic Iraq, at least for a very long time. They have called into question the logic of a lengthy U.S. presence. And once you've done that, what is the case for Americans dying in order to have this end slowly?"

Just after the Republican election defeat, Bush suggested that he was open to new ideas about Iraq. "It's necessary to have a fresh perspective," he said in nominating Robert M. Gates to succeed the ousted Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

But more recently, the president has, if anything, seemed to harden his original position. In Hanoi, Vietnam, nearly two weeks ago, he suggested that he would regard the recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton group as one voice among many.

In Riga, Latvia, two days ago, he said, "There's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

On the way home from Jordan, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said al-Maliki was told that the Baker-Hamilton report "was going to be one input" and that Bush would consider it along with the thoughts of many others.

In private, some members of the Iraq Study Group have expressed concern that they could find themselves in not-quite-open confrontation with Bush next week.

"He's a true believer," one participant in the group's debates said. "Finessing the differences is not going to be easy."

The group never seriously considered the position that Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, took more than a year ago. Murtha, a leading voice on national security issues, said a troop withdrawal should begin immediately.

The study group debated timetables, especially after a proposal, backed by influential Democratic members of the commission, that a robust diplomatic strategy and better training of Iraqis be matched up with a clear schedule for withdrawal. But any explicit mention of such a schedule was dropped from the final report.

In statements yesterday, Democrats including former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware seemed to agree that definitive timelines could invite trouble. Nonetheless, some of the areas of potential conflict with Bush seem clear.

"I think that what's clearly being implied in the study group's report is what some of us have been saying for a while," said Sen. Jack Reed, a hawkish Democrat from Rhode Island with a military record that has made him a spokesman for the party on Iraq.

"A phased redeployment - one that begins in six months or so - is where we need to head."

There is evidence that more and more Republicans are likely to line up with the Iraq Study Group's conclusions, even if some find the military prescriptions vague and the group's idea of talking directly to Iran and Syria repugnant. The Republicans have little interest in facing another election, in two years, with Iraq as the overarching issue.

But Bush faces no more elections. And he has not been one to back down, even when offered a "graceful exit." He has staked his presidency on remaking Iraq and, with it, the Middle East. Every day, the chances of that seem more remote. With two years left in his term, this might be his last moment for a real change of strategy.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad