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Analysis: Republicans Fear War Fallout
Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution who is part of the Baker-Hamilton study group, deemed it unlikely that Baker would lend his support to a phased withdrawal such as some Democrats have advocated. "Baker's not a political novice," O'Hanlon said.
Still, he said, the Iraq government could be told that "you've got to make some big changes" and that U.S. military backing was not forever. Might Bush announce a change in strategy before the election? "Who knows? I wouldn't rule it out," said O'Hanlon.
Bush could portray it to the world "as being not about the election but about the failed Baghdad security plan, and give his party a little boost before the midterms," O'Hanlon said.
Mindful of the political ramifications, the White House sought on Monday to tamp down the growing GOP criticism by portraying the president as engaged _ and flexible.
He met over the weekend with his generals, and on Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
White House officials said U.S. and Iraqi leaders had established "milestones" and "benchmarks" to gauge security, economic and political improvements _ but that the U.S. had not issued ultimatums nor withdrawal targets.
"What we aren't doing is sitting there with our heads in the ground," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett as he made the rounds of five morning television news shows. He said that the administration was "making tactical changes on a week-by-week basis as we respond to the enemy's reactions to our strategies."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that two Republicans _ whom he declined to name _ had told him they would demand a new policy on Iraq after the election. He said the GOP lawmakers were told not to make waves before then because it could cost the party seats.
Biden predicted many GOP defections on Iraq if Democrats win control of one or more chambers of Congress. Polls suggest there is a likelihood Democrats could take at least the House.
As to Bush's oft-repeated statement that U.S. troops will stand down as Iraqi ones stand up, Biden said, "The reason we cannot stand down is that they aren't standing together. They're killing each other."
"I don't see a big surprise with respect to Iraq that turns it around, and that's the only thing that would help the Republicans," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist. "I think it just keeps getting worse and worse, and that is not good news for the president and the incumbent party in the House and the Senate."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.