With the White House facing a pivotal week for Iraq policy, the big question is not so much what the bipartisan Iraq Study Group will say when it releases its report Wednesday, but how President Bush will respond.
In the final two years of his tenure and well aware that Iraq more than anything will define his place in history, Mr. Bush is facing intense pressure to make extensive adjustments to save a project that most experts conclude is rapidly failing.
At the same time, recent insistence by the president that his policies will yet succeed suggest that Bush will resist recommendations that do not mesh with his vision for Iraq.
"This president doesn't like to backtrack – but then sometimes he does," says Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "He sees his legacy as showing resolve, and that is going to influence any decisions [on Iraq] as much as the enormous pressure he is under to change course."
For example: the study group is expected to recommend a significant drawdown of the 144,000 US troops in Iraq over the coming year, even if Iraqi forces are not up to replacing them. That proposal "simply has no realism to it," Bush said last week. But another anticipated proposal, for substantially increased training of Iraqi security forces, is more likely to receive a presidential nod.
Much has been revealed in recent days suggesting the congressionally commissioned Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, will recommend a direction that's neither "stay the course" nor "cut and run." Recommendations are expected to include measures for using future US troop levels as leverage to pressure the Iraqi government to make hard political decisions – on disbanding militias, for example, or accommodating Sunnis.
At the same time, the Baker commission is expected to favor intensifying and broadening regional diplomatic efforts to help pull Iraq back from the brink of full-blown civil war. That recommendation is expected to include opening dialogue with objectionable but influential neighbors in the region, especially Iran and Syria.
The administration has been dropping hints that a major adjustment is forthcoming in US Iraq policy. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, said Sunday that the president would unveil a "new way forward" in coming weeks that will include "significant changes."
But Bush is also acting to put the public on notice that any changes will be what he determines is best, based on the full panoply of recommendations he is receiving.
Bush and various aides have repeated recently that the Baker commission's report is just one of a number that the president will be receiving over the coming days on how to proceed in Iraq.
In addition to studies anticipated from the Pentagon and the National Security Council, Bush has also received recently at least two detailed memos – from Mr. Hadley and outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – offering analysis and recommendations that emphasize the need for deep policy changes to alter Iraq's downward spiral.
Those two memos in particular have shifted the political ground for Bush as he awaits what was already expected to be a week of pressure for change with the release of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.
"The flow of calls to reconsider Iraq policy means the context is very different – and more intense," says Mr. Alterman, a former State Department policy planning staff member in the president's first term. "After the Hadley and Rumsfeld memos, this would be the third call in a week saying: 'You really have to consider alternatives' – and to a president who has made clear he doesn't want to consider alternatives."
Given the high profile the Iraq Study Group has achieved, the White House won't be able to brush it off. At the same time, it will not want it to appear that the president is hanging on its every word, former presidential advisers say.
"We can anticipate that the [Baker] report will offer such a number of nuanced statements that it will permit reading into it what you want to see," says Geoffrey Kemp, an expert in security issues at the Nixon Center in Washington who was on the national security staff of the Reagan White House. "It will be difficult for the president to dismiss it, but ... neither will [Bush] want to look as if he is waiting, hat in hand, for its recommendations."
Given those dual pressures, Mr. Kemp says he expects the White House to "take some time to digest what the study group has to say," and then to incorporate those aspects it agrees with into its new policy.
"I think [Bush] will use Baker-Hamilton to bolster his case where he can," Kemp says.
For example, Kemp says he now sees as practically written in stone a significant drawdown of US troops over the coming year.
But some analysts expect Bush to announce in the coming weeks an actual increase in US troops patrolling the Iraqi capital. If that happens, the president can be expected to announce such a decision as a short-term necessity for achieving the long-term goal of "withdrawing US troops and putting the Iraqis in control of their destiny," Kemp says.
White House political calculations will play a role in how it responds, others say.
"Remember this is not a nonpartisan commission, it is bipartisan," Alterman says. "So it will be looking at political outcomes as much as at outcomes on the grounds in Iraq."