Petraeus gives cover to Bush

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush finds himself in a strengthened position to direct the course of an unpopular war after two days of congressional testimony by the top military general and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

The sober reports from Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker provided Bush with some breathing room, analysts said, by giving antiwar members of Congress little new material with which to build a consensus for change.

"I thought [Petraeus'] demeanor, along with his chest of medals, really bought all the time that George W. Bush needs right now," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "It certainly stopped any wavering among moderate Republicans, and probably also gave some backbone to a small number of Democrats in the House who are supporting him."

Bush plans to take advantage of the situation as soon as tomorrow evening, when he is to address the nation. In his speech, Bush is expected to endorse Petraeus' plan to bring home 30,000 troops by next summer while keeping 130,000 troops into the future. The drawdown would have to begin by next April in any event, unless the military extended the tours of duty of forces in Iraq.

While the goals of U.S. policy in Iraq have shifted numerous times, Bush seems to be achieving the ends he has set out for himself in recent months.

A newly released book quotes Bush as saying that he was trying to maintain U.S. troop strength in Iraq beyond this month's report on American progress there, which the White House plans to release Friday. Bush told Robert Draper, the author of Dead Certain, that he hoped to keep a large U.S. presence in Iraq until he leaves office, in early 2009, so his successor would be able to "stay longer at the request of the Iraqi government."

"At the end of the day, the Democrats don't have the votes and apparently don't have the will to force any serious withdrawal measure on them," said Sean Aday, a George Washington University professor.

Yesterday, senators grilled Petraeus and Crocker on what strategy would govern the U.S. presence in Iraq after the 30,000 "surge" troops are withdrawn, which gave the hearings a sharper edge than those in the House a day earlier. To mounting frustration, the general and the ambassador said they could not predict when the political stability in Iraq and strength of Iraqi security forces would allow further troop reductions.

"Where is this going?" asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican.

"I would not put a timeline on it," said Crocker. "In terms of concrete things like force levels, as General Petraeus said, neither of us believe we can see beyond next summer."

"The surge must not be an excuse for failure to prepare for the next phase of our involvement, whether that is a partial withdrawal, a gradual redeployment or some other option," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations committee.

The president's two top Iraq officials would not be pinned down on what would happen after July, when the last of the "surge" reinforcement troops is withdrawn.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey demanded to know yesterday what Petraeus would say if the president asked him directly how long American troops would be needed in Iraq.

"I would give a forthright answer, Senator, which is that I cannot predict that," Petraeus replied. "Look, I am as frustrated with the situation as anybody else," he added.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York asked the general if "the American people deserve a very specific answer" about what happens in a year if conditions don't improve.

Petraeus repeated an answer he had given earlier, that he would be "hard pressed" to recommend continuing with troop levels as high as 130,000.

That Bush, a lame-duck president with low approval ratings, would be positioned to continue a war that a majority of voters consider a mistake, illustrates the skill of the White House in shaping and shifting the message as well as the weakness of the Democratic opposition.

Democrats took control of Congress last year in large part because of frustration over the war. But their slim majority in the Senate falls short of the number needed to end debate on withdrawal timelines, let alone override a veto.

"If you are a White House and you are dealing with a war that is not going well, then you have to keep pivoting," said Aday, the George Washington professor. "This is a very smart administration when it comes to marshaling public opinion and framing the news."

The dynamic on Iraq began to shift last month, when reports of troop surge progress made headlines as lawmakers were on vacation. Returning to Washington, Democratic leaders were reported ready to shift from a hard-line, anti-war stance and seek compromise with Republicans growing frustrated with the president's policies.

But the testimony from Crocker and Petraeus made those allegiances less likely, said Charles Black, a Republican consultant with ties to the White House.

Democrats "were in much better shape on that a week ago then they are today," Black said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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