Bush's rethink on Iraq

He crafts the 'way forward' with a show of consultation.

Whatever options President Bush chooses for the future of US policy in Iraq, one thing appears clear: He is trying to convey to voters that he is not acting alone.

Under intense pressure to come up with a new course of action following the publication of the Iraq Study Group report, Mr. Bush is holding three days of very public consultations this week, meeting with everyone from Iraqi politicians to retired generals to historians who have been critical of some of his actions.

It's possible this schedule is just for show, a way in essence to blunt the effect of the publicity of the ISG report's release.

It's also possible that it is genuine outreach at a time of national need.

"My own sense is that probably President Bush is in the same place as a lot of people on Iraq," says Jim Walsh, a research associate in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "He knows things aren't going well, but doesn't know what he needs to do."

It now appears that Bush will give a speech to the nation early next year outlining a new "way forward" for Iraq, according to an unnamed White House source. Originally, the speech had been tentatively scheduled for before Christmas.

On Monday morning, Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the afternoon, he heard from a group of military experts from outside government, including retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University.

Tuesday Bush, via videoconference, listened to military commanders in Iraq. He also met at the White House with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the most powerful Sunni political party.

Wednesday he is to meet with outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials.

In one sense, there is a theatrical quality to at least some of these meetings. Presumably, Bush already knows well the attitudes of the officials of his own administration. Why call on them now?

In addition, despite the implication that US policy will soon change, Bush's tone in recent days has not hinted where he might go.

But there have been enough events in recent weeks – from the outcome of the November elections to the continued Iraqi violence and the Iraq Study Group's dire warnings – that they must at least have given the president pause, says Mr. Walsh.

"All of this presumably would have shaken anyone of the sense that they should keep going in the course they're on," he says.

In addition, the strategic risk facing the US in Iraq has only grown, says another expert. It involves not just Iraq itself, but the stability of the whole region, and by extension the stability of world oil markets.

The Iraq Study Group warned that a collapse in Iraq could suck in neighboring nations and lead to widespread conflict. At the same time, the US can't be seen to be abandoning Iraq.

"This is way beyond partisanship at this point," says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. "It involves the fundamental stability of the Middle East, and the fundamental credibility of US foreign policy."

The administration may need to begin a gradual of withdrawal of troops at this point, says Mr. Martel. But he adds that the administration also should make clear that some level of US commitment to Iraq will be necessary for years to come.

The fundamental policy point that the administration appears to be debating is how to put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to get him to act to reduce militia violence and try to speed sectarian reconciliation.

While some of the experts who met with Bush on Monday bluntly told him that the US was failing in Iraq, a number of them also questioned the Iraq Study Group's main recommendations of a gradual troop withdrawal and a push to include Iran and Syria in region-wide diplomacy.

And Bush himself continues to talk about the need to establish Iraq as a functioning democracy – a goal that study group participants did not mention.

"Iraq is a central component of defeating the extremists who want to establish safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States," said Bush on Monday.

If nothing else, the Iraq Study Group report may have acted as a shock on the White House, forcing it into an unplanned rethinking of its course of action, said experts at a Brookings Institution seminar on the report last week.

But despite all the publicity given the report, its members, even co-chairman and ex-Secretary of State James Baker, remain commentators on events. Real power is elsewhere.

"This in the end is all about what happens on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the Oval Office," said Bruce Reidel, a Brookings senior fellow for Middle East policy.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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