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by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Friday, Dec. 08, 2006 at 8:42 AM
Report confronts the president with a powerful argument that his policy in Iraq is not working and that he must move toward disengagement.
Bush must reverse course, report says
Whether he will adopt approach is uncertain
New York Times
Dec. 7, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - In 142 stark pages, the Iraq Study Group report makes an impassioned plea for bipartisan consensus on the most divisive foreign policy issue of this generation. Without President Bush, that cannot happen.
The commissioners gave a nod to Bush, adopting his language in accepting the goal of an Iraq that can "govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself." But the administration's talk of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East is absent, as is any talk of victory.
Instead, the report confronts the president with a powerful argument that his policy in Iraq is not working and that he must move toward disengagement. For Bush to embrace the study group's blueprint would mean accepting its implicit criticism of his democracy agenda, reversing its course in Iraq, engaging Syria and Iran in negotiations on Iraq's future, jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and meeting Democrats more than halfway.
Assuming he is not ready to go that far, despite some recent signals of flexibility, he faces the more general question of whether he is ready to embrace the spirit of the report, not to mention the drubbing his party took in the midterm elections a month ago, and produce a new approach of his own that amounts to more than a repackaging of his current worldview.
"In a sense," said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy who worked for both President Bill Clinton and the first President George Bush, "what you have here offers the Democrats a ready handle to show, 'We're prepared to be bipartisan on the issue of Iraq because we'll embrace the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Are you prepared to be bipartisan as well?' "
The study group, for instance, calls for direct engagement with Iran and Syria; so far, Bush has refused. While Bush has steadfastly resisted a timetable for withdrawal, the report says all combat brigades "not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq" - note the careful use of the conditional - by the first quarter of 2008.
The report in effect calls on Democrats, at least those who have been pushing for a rapid withdrawal of troops, to show patience, warning that a fast pullout would lead to "a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization and a threat to the global economy" - in effect, pushing Iraq into total anarchy.
But the real target of the Iraq Study Group is Bush. The president already has sought to play down the role the report will have in shaping his thinking. The administration has several reviews of its own under way, and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, began saying as early as October that the White House was "not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq."
So while Bush called the report "an opportunity to come together and work together" after receiving it on Wednesday, it was no surprise on Capitol Hill that many Democrats were quicker to embrace it than Republicans. Members of the president's party seemed to be adopting a kind of wait-and-see posture, praising the report for its seriousness and depth as they searched for clues about what Bush would do.
"I was impressed by the seriousness with which this group reached its conclusions and its plea that the level of partisanship we've seen in Iraq be toned down," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming Republican leader. But he cut short any conversation of what Bush should do: "I'm not going to give the president advice."
The president has spent weeks trying to shape the political climate in which he would receive the report. He ordered up a Pentagon study and commissioned his own White House review. He went to Amman, Jordan, last week to meet with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. On Monday, he received a powerful Iraqi Shiite leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, at the White House.
Those moves have been aimed at giving Bush the flexibility he needs to do pretty much whatever he wants. But meeting with him in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, the commissioners made a pointed appeal for him to give their study greater weight than his own.
"This is the only bipartisan advice you're going to get," the Democratic co-chairman of the panel, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, told Bush, according to an account from Snow. Commissioners said afterward that the president seemed to absorb that plea.
"I don't want to put too much in his mouth now," said Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who was secretary of State late in the elder Bush's term, "but there was not one bit of argument. He didn't come back at us on anything."
Bush has already been adjusting policy in modest ways - carrying out, for example, some of the recommendations made to him in late October by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, engaging other Iraqi leaders, and sending Vice President Dick Cheney for talks with leaders of Saudi Arabia.
That is not the only sign that the president will give serious consideration to the report. Bush's nominee for Defense secretary, Robert Gates, caught Washington by surprise on Tuesday when he testified in his confirmation hearings that the United States is not winning in Iraq. It may be no coincidence that Gates is a former member of the Iraq Study Group.
The report offered a little something for everyone and took away a little something from everyone as well. The reaction was harshest at the ends of the political spectrum.
William Kristol, the neoconservative thinker who pushed for the invasion, lambasted the recommendations as "a disguised surrender." Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., whose call for withdrawal touched off a firestorm last year, complained that the panel offered a prescription "no different from the current policy."
The real question now is whether the report can generate what the panel's Republican co-chairman, former Secretary of State James Baker, called the "tremendous amount of political will" necessary to prod Democrats and Republicans into genuine cooperation and Bush into embracing policy prescriptions he thus far has shunned.
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