Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade
By: DAVID E. SANGER on: 01.12.2006 [13:33 ] (2776 reads)
Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: December 1, 2006
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 — In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality now appears clear: despite the Democrats’ victory this month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.
Go to Complete Coverage » The Joint Chiefs of Staff are signaling that too rapid an American pullout would open the way to all-out civil war. 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, at a minimum, leave a force of 70,000 or more troops in the country for a long time to come, to train the Iraqis and to insure against 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 may be the only solace for Mr. Bush as he returns from a messy encounter with Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
In the 23 days since the election, the debate in Washington and much of the country appears to have turned away from Mr. Bush’s oft-repeated insistence that the only viable option is to stay and fight smarter. The most talked-about alternatives now include renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces while preparing to pull American combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year. The message to Iraq’s warring parties would be clear: Washington’s commitment to making Iraq work is not open-ended.
Yet if Mr. Bush’s words are taken at face value, those are options still redolent of timetables — at best, cut-and-walk. Standing next to Mr. Maliki on Thursday in Amman, Jordan, Mr. Bush declared that 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 just 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 on Wednesday.
The question now is whether Mr. Bush can be persuaded to shift course — and whether he might now 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 American presence. And once you’ve done that, what is the case for Americans dying in order to have this end slowly?”
In the days just after the Republican defeat on Nov. 7, Mr. Bush had 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 position again. In Hanoi, Vietnam, nearly two weeks ago, he suggested that he would regard the recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton group as no more than a voice among many. In Riga, Latvia, two days ago he all but pounded the lectern as he declared, “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, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said Mr. Maliki was told that the Baker-Hamilton report “was going to be one input” — a clear signal that no matter how senior the group’s members, no matter how bipartisan the group, no matter how close Mr. Baker is to the president’s father, the recommendations would not be regarded as sacrosanct.
In private, some members of the Iraq Study Group have expressed concern that they could find themselves in not-quite-open confrontation with Mr. Bush. “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 Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who is a leading voice on national security issues, took more than a year ago, that withdrawal should begin immediately. The group did debate 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 explicit mention of such a schedule was dropped.
In statements on Thursday, Democrats from former President Bill Clinton to Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to agree that hard timelines could invite trouble. Nonetheless, some areas of potential conflict with Mr. 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 Senator Jack Reed, a hawkish Democrat from Rhode Island with a military record, which 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. And what’s different now is that redeployment has become the consensus view,” save for inside the White House. “The debate is at what pace.”
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. After all, the Republicans have little interest in facing another election, in two years, where Iraq becomes the overarching issue.
But Mr. 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 only two years left, this may be his last moment for a real change of strategy.