When the midterm elections are over, the Bush administration can get down to making tough calls in Iraq policy.
With Republicans and Democrats alike calling for a new direction to American efforts in Iraq, the United States will proceed to new policies that will be neither a rabbit-out-of-the-hat redirection nor simply cosmetic tinkering, experts say. In other words, expect neither abrupt US withdrawal nor dogged insistence that current policies are working.
Among many options under consideration, these are the ones most likely to see the light of day, judging from lawmakers, experts, and steps the White House is already taking:
•A new diplomatic push to engage all of Iraq's neighbors – including Iran and Syria – to stabilize the country and help pull it back from the brink of full-blown civil war.
•More insistence that the Iraq government make the decisions needed to help quell sectarian violence – including such things as combatant amnesty and the sharing of oil revenue.
•Reduction of US troop numbers over the next year to a level sustainable among both the American and Iraqi publics.
The US elections may have held up decisionmaking until now, some experts say. But now, they add, changes are not only possible, but unavoidable because of such forces as deteriorating conditions in Iraq, unabated political pressure, and the much-anticipated report of the high-profile Iraq Study Group – co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic congressional leader Lee Hamilton.
"Our elections have artificially polarized the debate and left us with a false choice between 'stay the course' and 'cut and run.' But there are a number of options between keeping 160,000 troops on the ground and just pulling out," says James Dobbins, a RAND Corp. national-security expert with conflict-resolution experience in the past three administrations.
"With the elections over, we [can] not only consider those options in between," he adds, "but no doubt [should] move forward on at least some of them."
Indeed, for some well-placed observers, the recommendations of what is simply being called the Baker commission are likely to have a greater impact on US policy than the election results. That's partly because the Democrats are not united behind a single set of Iraq policy initiatives, but also because Mr. Baker commands such respect in the White House.
"I don't think [the elections] will necessarily put added pressure on the president to do a shift in military strategy he doesn't believe in," says Michael Gerson, a former Bush aide and speechwriter now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
But the administration is "genuinely open to the Baker commission recommendations," Mr. Gerson adds, "not to fundamentally change, but to refine their approach in ways that will build bipartisan support."
One reason a broad diplomatic push with Iraq's neighbors appears likely is that Baker, a well-known and respected figure in the Middle East, has already met with some regional leaders on the issue.
At the same time, some experts say pointedly that the recommendation is likely to be for a "comprehensive" diplomatic effort – meaning it will call on the Bush administration to leave behind its reluctance to engage with influential but objectionable players in the conflict, including Iran and Syria.
Pointing to past diplomatic efforts he was involved in – including the 1995 Dayton Accords on the Bosnia conflict and negotiations on post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001 – Mr. Dobbins says one key to success was making clear that everyone would be heeded. But such inclusion, he adds, entails commitments and responsibilities.
On the particularly thorny question of US troop levels, options are being floated both for an increase and a decrease.
At the heart of this question are disappointing assessments of Iraqi security forces: After three years of US assistance and training, they are still unable to provide for Iraq's security – and in some cases are sources of rising insecurity.
"The argument for increasing the number of US troops comes down to the fact that the Iraqi security forces are not stepping up to the plate," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military-affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The point of even a temporary increase in US troops, from the current number of about 144,000, would be to win decisively the battle for Baghdad security. Many in the military now consider this the key to keeping Iraq back from the precipice of outright civil war.
Still, many experts expect the contrary: a decision to gradually draw down US troops to the 40,000-60,000 level over the coming year.
"The reduction argument comes down to three points," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "Our Army and Marine Corps can't hold up under the strain; a shrinking US presence would focus the minds of Iraqi political leaders that they don't have forever; and it reduces the perception of an occupying power that drives the insurgency."
Another argument for this level of troops is that in order to make some success of Iraq, some American presence will be necessary for a number of years to come. But that is seen as politically possible in either country only under a reduced US presence.
"Given the unpopularity on either side of having our troops in Iraq, we're going to have to constitute a presence that can be sustained for some years to come," says Dobbins of RAND Corp.
Despite the attention to troop levels, resolution of Iraq's conflict remains largely political, not military, experts emphasize. As a result, the US is likely to make increasingly clear to Iraq's political leaders that the US commitment is contingent upon their ability to act on key political questions.
Among these: resolving the degree of autonomy that regions will be allowed, establishing a fair system for oil-revenue sharing among Iraq's key sectarian populations, and – given high unemployment – stepping up equitable economic-development activities in areas that have been secured by US and Iraqi forces.
Some advisers to the Iraq Study Group say that Baker has not ruled out the idea of abandoning the current government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki if it does not begin to act on key concerns. The alternative could be a more technocratic and authoritarian government less beholden to the Shiite majority.