Stage Set for Iraq Policy Shift

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, left, met with Iraq Study Group co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton in Baghdad in August. The group's report is to be issued in December.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, left, met with Iraq Study Group co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton in Baghdad in August. The group's report is to be issued in December. (By Daniel Berehulak -- Getty Images)
By Glenn Kessler and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Democratic control of the House and possibly the Senate, combined with the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has set the stage for a dramatic shift in the Bush administration's policy toward the Iraq war, lawmakers and experts said. The contours of a new policy are not clear, but there is likely to be more pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in sectarian violence and a growing clamor from Democrats to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops.

Rumsfeld is slated to be replaced by Robert M. Gates, a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group who has spent recent weeks learning the problems of the administration's current approach. Unlike Rumsfeld, who was widely seen as a roadblock to a shift in strategy, Gates is expected to be much more receptive to implementing the group's recommendations, due to be made public about Dec. 7.

Gates has been frustrated that the administration has been unable to adjust to changing circumstances in Iraq, according to one person who has spoken to him about the administration's management of the war. Gates, he said, believes "you can't be afraid to adjust your action to adjust to the realities on the ground."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who would chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if Democrats capture the Virginia Senate seat and control of the Senate, said he understood that Gates "has a much more pragmatic and realistic view of the place we find ourselves" in Iraq and is much more willing to work with the uniformed military than Rumsfeld was.

Even before the election, both Democrats and Republicans had been eagerly awaiting the recommendations of the study group, which is headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana. The group of mainstream foreign policy experts is not poised to make radical suggestions when it unveils its report, but official Washington has expected both parties to seize on its ideas for political cover.

One senior Senate aide said both parties are looking for an exit from Iraq out of "pure political interests." After their devastating losses, Republicans do not want Iraq to be an electoral albatross in 2008; Democrats, meanwhile, do not want it to still be the first order of business if they reoccupy the White House in 2009.

Biden said that a number of Republicans have told him privately that they are willing to push for a change in course on Iraq after the election. "We have a narrow window before 2008 kicks in to get a bipartisan consensus on Iraq," he said.

The administration has long set a goal of a stable, democratic Iraq, suggesting that major troop withdrawals could not be expected until the Iraqi government was capable of sustaining that enterprise itself.

"I'd like our troops to come home, too, but I want them to come home with victory, and that is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," President Bush said yesterday at a news conference. But he added that "Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough."

The Baker-Hamilton study group is not expected to call for pulling out of Iraq quickly. Rather, insiders say, the most likely recommendation will be to curtail the goal of democratizing Iraq and instead emphasize stability. That might entail devoting more resources to training and equipping Iraq's military, perhaps by radically increasing the size of the U.S. training and advisory effort.

Bush, who will meet with the Baker-Hamilton group next week, told reporters he is awaiting its report, mentioning twice more in his news conference that he would "work" with them. In announcing the nomination of Gates, Bush said that "he will provide the department with a fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq."

Democrats served notice that they will push for a change in approach, such as beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops soon. "The American people have spoken," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who is in line to become House speaker in January. "It's important for us to work in a bipartisan way with the president, again, to solve the problem, not to stay the course. That's not working. That's clear."

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