By Michael Abramowitz and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 28, 2006
CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 27 -- President Bush's top national security advisers arrived here to hone a new Iraq strategy that administration officials said seems increasingly likely to include a surge of additional troops to try to help stabilize the country.
Although officials have said no decisions will be made in the Crawford meeting, Bush seems to be laying the groundwork for one more sustained effort to defeat the Iraq insurgency and stabilize the country politically. Two defense officials said Wednesday that some sort of troop increase appears likely in an effort to contain the violence but that the specific size and nature of such a surge still has to be worked out.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel took a swipe at Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, for his comment Tuesday that ordering more troops to Iraq would do little to address the underlying political problems fostering violence.
"I would hope that Senator Biden would wait to hear what the president has to say before announcing what he's opposed to," Stanzel told reporters here.
The president arrived in Crawford this week for a working holiday that includes a meeting Thursday morning with his top national security advisers, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Rice and Gates conferred informally with Bush at his Texas ranch Wednesday afternoon, a White House official said.
Top military officials have said that they are open to sending more U.S. troops to Iraq if there is a specific strategic mission for them, though there are doubts whether a small increase, or one that is short in duration, can accomplish much. Another reason for a surge would be to accelerate the buildup of U.S. trainers helping Iraqi forces.
The Pentagon announced Wednesday that Gates has approved the deployment of an Army brigade to Kuwait to stand by as the U.S. Central Command's theater reserve force, which means that more than 3,000 U.S. troops will probably move to the region early next month. Although those forces could be used to effect a surge, they are replacing a smaller Marine unit that moved into Iraq this fall and is usually ready for use anywhere in the region.
Officials said Gates is bringing to Crawford suggestions for a comprehensive approach to the problem, emphasizing the need for economic and diplomatic components alongside any military action. One idea that has been picking up steam in recent weeks is a new jobs plan as officials push to open as many as 10 state-owned factories around Iraq by the end of January. Commanders believe putting young Iraqi men to work could make a serious dent in sectarian violence, and an official familiar with the program said Gates plans to brief the president on it.
The idea that Bush would increase troop levels in Iraq after elections in which Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress, partly because of his Iraq policy, appears to be creating some restiveness among Democrats.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that other than the removal of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, there's "very little sign that the president got the message the voters were sending when it comes to Iraq," adding: "Any decision to escalate in Iraq would suggest that the president is either politically tone deaf or deliberately ignoring the will of the vast majority of the American people."
But Gary Schmitt of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has close ties to the administration, said he believes Bush is unhappy with the advice he has been getting, especially from the Iraq Study Group, which has proposed trying to remove combat troops by early 2008. "All he was getting was various options for getting out," Schmitt said.
"No president wants to be remembered as the guy who lost a war," he said. "Who knows whether this is a day late and a dollar short, but it is a striking example of presidential will trying to bend the system to what he wants."
The White House has said that Bush will formally unveil his plans for Iraq sometime after the first of the year.
White reported from Washington.