Major Change Expected In Strategy for Iraq War

By Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 20, 2006

The growing doubts among GOP lawmakers about the administration's Iraq strategy, coupled with the prospect of Democratic wins in next month's midterm elections, will soon force the Bush administration to abandon its open-ended commitment to the war, according to lawmakers in both parties, foreign policy experts and others involved in policymaking.

Senior figures in both parties are coming to the conclusion that the Bush administration will be unable to achieve its goal of a stable, democratic Iraq within a politically feasible time frame. Agitation is growing in Congress for alternatives to the administration's strategy of keeping Iraq in one piece and getting its security forces up and running while 140,000 U.S. troops try to keep a lid on rapidly spreading sectarian violence.

On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates are hammering Republican candidates for backing a failed Iraq policy, and GOP defense of the war is growing muted. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed that voters are more confident in Democrats' ability to handle the Iraq war than the Republicans' -- a reversal from the last election.

Few officials in either party are talking about an immediate pullout of U.S. combat troops. But interest appears to be growing in several broad ideas. One would be some kind of effort to divide the country along regional lines. Another, favored by many Democrats, is a gradual withdrawal of troops over a set period of time. A third would be a dramatic scaling-back of U.S. ambitions in Iraq, giving up on democracy and focusing only on stability.

Many senior Republicans with close ties to the administration also believe that essential to a successful strategy in Iraq are an aggressive new diplomatic initiative to secure a Middle East peace settlement and a new effort to engage Iraq's neighbors, such as Syria and Iran, in helping stabilize the country -- perhaps through an international conference.

One point on which adherents of these sharply different approaches appear to agree is that "staying the course" is fast becoming a dead letter. "I don't believe that we can continue based on an open-ended, unconditional presence," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a centrist Maine Republican. "I don't think there's any question about that, that there will be a change" in the U.S. strategy in Iraq after next month's elections.

Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration foreign policy official, told reporters yesterday that the situation is reaching a "tipping point" both in Iraq and in U.S. politics. "More of essentially the same is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support," said Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He added that the administration's current Iraq strategy "has virtually no chance of succeeding" and predicted that "change will come."

Many Senate Republicans are waiting for the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat. Both Baker and Hamilton have made it clear that they do not see the administration's current Iraq policy as working -- though they do not plan to issue recommendations until well after the midterm elections, probably in early January.

Many foreign policy experts believe that the commission could sway President Bush more than most such study groups because of Baker's close ties to the Bush family.

In an interview this week, Hamilton said there is no "silver bullet" to turning the situation around in Iraq but noted that frustration is clearly rising over the current course. "I can't walk out the door without someone handing me a recommendation," he said.

Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he is open to "significant changes" in the U.S. approach and is hoping the Iraq Study Group can supply them. "I don't think anyone in the administration is pleased about the current state of affairs," he said. "I would hope that members of the administration are willing to learn from past mistakes . . . and choose a different path that would allow us to meet our objectives."

How open Bush will be to a change in course is unclear, even as the violence escalates -- this week has been one of the bloodiest for Americans in Baghdad in months. In recent remarks about Iraq, Bush has sounded a more flexible tone, saying he is open to suggestions for changes and emphasizing that his commanders adjust tactics constantly. He has repeatedly made it clear that U.S. patience with the new Iraqi government is not open-ended.

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