– Laying out a "way forward in Iraq," President Bush unveiled a plan Thursday night that begins a modest drawdown of troops this month but that would still have some 130,000 soldiers in Iraq a year from now.
Pointedly avoiding the word "withdrawal," the president called his drawdown policy a "return on success" that would be guided by conditions on the ground.
Mr. Bush's prime-time speech – his eighth televised address from the White House on the war – came on the eve of renewed congressional efforts, primarily from Democrats, aimed at drawing down US forces in Iraq and redefining the US mission much more rapidly.
The speech, designed in part to preempt those efforts and to rally flagging Republican support, followed two days of congressional testimony this week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and USAmbassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Bush said he was following General Petraeus's recommendations in announcing troop cuts that would basically return the US military footprint by the end of next summer to where it stood at the end of 2006.
Bush hailed the "success" of the "surge" of 30,000 troops he announced in January as the basis for a transition, to begin by the end of the year, from US forces "leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces."
He also focused heavily on Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, where tribal leaders have begun cooperating with the US against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist extremists. And while Bush announced the US would be developing an "enduring" partnership with Iraq that would require US forces to be there "beyond my presidency," he made little mention of the Iraqi government's failure to use the successes of the surge to pursue national reconciliation.
White House officials say the president sees his plan – troop withdrawals based on success on the ground – as an offer that can bridge the country's long divide over Iraq policy. In his speech, Bush said his plan of building on the surge's success to begin bringing troops home "makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."
That is not how many Democrats saw the speech, however, with Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island saying in the Democratic Party response that "Once again, the president failed to provide a plan to end this war."
Bush also repeatedly cast the US effort in Iraq as vital to national security and to defeating international terrorism, even though many critics believe on the contrary that Iraq is a drain on the military and is a distraction from the fight with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Some critics of Bush policy say they believe the president is really focused on a short-term desire to derail congressional momentum for more radical policy changes and a long-term goal of sustaining a sizable US presence in Iraq at least through the end of his term.
"The administration's strategy is to begin to draw down troops in a way that silences the main domestic critics and gives Bush the latitude to 'staythe course,' " says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What we're seeing is the translation into policy of Bush's desire to play this out until January 2009 and hand it off to the nextadministration."
Mr. Kupchan says the surge "is a failure" because it has not accomplished what Bush himself said it was designed to do – provide the "breathing space" for the sectarian factions of the Iraqi government to compromise on critical national reconciliation issues. In their congressional testimony, Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker acknowledged the disappointing political results of the past few months, but said Iraqi leaders were beginning to take important political steps, especially a the local level.
Yet Kupchan and other critics of the president's handling of Iraq say they fear Bush's trumpeting of the tactical successes of the surge is just one more in a line of events the administration has used to claim a corner has been turned in the Iraq war."This is another in a series of points where significantly positive developments are claimed as a way of extending the policy into the future," Kupchan says.
That line of "pivotal moments" includes the capture of Sadddam Hussein, the capture and killing of his sons Uday and Qusay, the approval in a referendum of a new Iraqi constitution, national elections resulting in the current parliament, the killing of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and now the switching of Sunni tribal cooperationin Anbar Province from Al-Qaeda-associated extremists to the US.
Yet Bush clearly felt compelled to acknowledge that nothing in Iraq is so clear-cut as "victory" or turning a corner. The president cited one piece of bad news from earlier in the day: the murder by car-bombing of leading sheik in what has been called "the Anbar awakening." Abdel-Sattar Abu Risha, who met with Bush earlier this month as head of the Anbar Awakening council, was killed just outside the Anbar capital of Ramadi when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle.
But White House officials were insisting that Thursday's speech marks a pivotal moment when military success against Al Qaeda in Iraq and in providing more security to the Iraqi people means the US will be able to begin adopting a new mission of guiding the Iraqi security forces in taking over more military operations.
"The mission over time will shift from ... our forces doing the population security to the Iraqis doing population security," says one senior administration official. "So you'll see US troops doing less of the leading in combat patrols ... and more and more enabling the Iraqis to do it themselves."
To some experts that sounds very close to the "as they stand up we'll stand down" policy that was Bush's mantra before the surge. But administration officials say the difference now is that as Iraqi security forces take over, they will maintain the surge's emphasis on localized public security.
And as for the administration's new emphasis on bottom-up political progress rather than national political reconciliation, some Iraq experts say it simply acknowledges the reality that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is practically nonexistent, is unable to move forward on stalled legislation, and is unlikely to become functional any time soon.
But as the White House prepared to deliver a required report on Iraq to Congress Friday, officials insisted the administration continues to press the Iraqis on the benchmarks for progress that all sides – the White House, the US Congress, and the Iraqi government – had agreed on.
"We're not moving the goal posts about the benchmarks; the benchmarks are important, and we want them to be met," says another senior administration official, who asked not to be named because the president had not yet delivered his speech. "However, they are not the only signs of progress or the only things to measure."
The Council on Foreign Relations' Kupchan says the White House has "deftly undercut the voices calling for a deadline for withdrawal." He says administration officials cleverly made a return to pre-surge troop numbers by next summer seem like a compromise and accepting a middle ground.
But with the White House eschewing any use of the phrase "exit strategy" and Bush still speaking Thursday of a "democratic Iraq" that is an example to the Middle East, Kupchan says the image left is of a president who plans to stick with his vision as long as he is in office.
"The issue this administration has yet to grapple with is, how do we get out of Iraq?," Kupchan says. "In effect, they are kicking the can down the road in a waythat avoids having to deal with some very difficult decisions."