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.

White House officials describe the current turmoil over Iraq policy in Washington as an expected byproduct of the upsurge in violence. Press secretary Tony Snow yesterday dismissed a dramatic about-face in policy -- such as a division of the country or phased withdrawal -- as a "non-starter" and called the idea that the White House will seek a course correction in Iraq "a bunch of hooey."

Bush has been adamant that the United States will not withdraw its troops until the Iraqi government can defend itself.

Like many who have met with the president in recent months to discuss Iraq policy, author and military expert Robert Kaplan said he detected clear limits to Bush's flexibility. "He seemed genuinely to enjoy the challenges to his policy that we threw at him," Kaplan said, describing a session Bush held with several outside strategists at Camp David in June. "He wasn't at all defensive. He appeared open to any new direction or tactic, except withdrawal, and yet that is what he might be faced with after November."

Along with the political debate, there also is growing frustration inside the U.S. military over Iraq, with some officers debating privately whether the situation there is salvageable. In recent weeks, senior military officers have offered a torrent of negative comments, a sharp contrast to the official optimism of the past three years.

"We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing" in Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said yesterday. He indicated that changes to a plan to restore security to the capital are being considered. "We find the insurgent elements, the extremists, are in fact punching back hard," Caldwell said.

In recent days, the demand for change on Iraq has been especially notable from inside the president's party: Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, returned from a trip to Iraq saying that country was adrift and all options should be considered. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a conservative Republican from Texas, said this week that she is willing to consider the wisdom of somehow breaking up Iraq.

Until now, Democrats' calls for withdrawing troops have been largely irrelevant, but if Democrats take one or both houses of Congress next month, their views could become significant in shaping strategy.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who would take over the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, said he favors beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops that "gives the Iraqis notice that they're going to be looking into the abyss" unless they make necessary changes.

One version of this option was presented to House Democrats last month by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who outlined a four-step plan that would include a joint declaration by the U.S. and Iraqi governments on a timeline for the departure of U.S. troops, a follow-up international conference on stabilizing Iraq and a greater focus on economic reconstruction.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who is campaigning to become the new majority leader should Democrats take power, said many in his caucus like the idea behind the Brzezinski plan, though perhaps not all the specifics. "The Iraqis have to understand that there is a time frame," he said. "Our commitment is substantial, but it is not unending."

People familiar with the work of the Iraq Study Group say it is also mulling a variant of the gradual withdrawal idea that would move U.S. troops out of Iraq but leave a residual force in the region to keep the violence from spreading and Iraq's neighbors from meddling.

Another idea getting a closer look is a new power-sharing agreement that would give more power to autonomous regions -- Kurdish in the north, Sunni in the middle and Shiite in the south -- while weakening the central government. This idea is most closely identified with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Because there is no oil in what would be the Sunni-controlled area, Biden and Gelb envision some sort of scheme to share oil revenue with the Sunnis to get them to agree to such a plan.

Biden said yesterday that if the Democrats win big in next month's elections, "You have a lot of Republicans who are going to openly join Democrats and will push back hard against the president."

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