By Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 14, 2007
The bipartisan opposition to President Bush's troop-increase plan has proved more intense than his advisers hoped and has left them scrambling to find support, but the White House is banking on the assumption that it can execute its "new way forward" in Iraq before Congress can derail it.
The plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq was virtually guaranteed to provoke a furor in Washington, Bush advisers said, but the storm was exacerbated by the slow, leaky way that the White House reached a decision. The policy review stretched two months after the election and the essence of the plan became known long before Bush announced it, making it a political piñata for opponents.
Without Bush making the case for it until last week, resistance hardened, and aides now harbor no hope of winning over Democrats. Instead, they aim mainly to keep Republicans from abandoning him further. Bush invited GOP leaders to Camp David this weekend and will argue his case to the nation on CBS's "60 Minutes" tonight. Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley will also hit the airwaves today.
"We recognize that many members of Congress are skeptical," Bush said in his radio address yesterday, adding: "Members of Congress have a right to express their views, and express them forcefully. But those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success. To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible."
Many Democrats, in fact, have proposed alternatives centered around pulling out troops, an idea Bush flatly rejects. So hopes for a bipartisan consensus after Democrats captured Congress in the November midterm elections have evaporated, and Bush appears more isolated than ever.
"We are headed towards quite a donnybrook in Congress," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose plan for withdrawing combat forces by early 2008 was never fully embraced by Bush or Democrats. "We had hoped that there would be more progress towards a more bipartisan approach."
The White House has downscaled its goals and is playing for time. Advisers resign themselves to a nonbinding congressional resolution condemning the troop increase but want to avoid many Republicans voting for it. Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who lost reelection, called Bush's plan "a step in the right direction" and said Republicans do not want to walk away from Iraq but are "in full political survival mode" now. "It's very hard, particularly if you're on the ballot in two years, to run on the side of the president on anything to do with the war."
The more serious threat to the White House would be a Democratic attempt to restrict funds for more troops. Bush aides said that current funds are enough to get started, and they are counting on the notion that it will take two months until the supplemental appropriation bill providing more war funds comes to a vote. By then, they said, extra troops will be on the ground and it will be too late for Congress to stop them. And they hope for signs of progress that would let them argue that the plan is working.
"This buys us time," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. A political strategist who advises the White House added: "The public responds to progress and to events. Every time they can see real progress -- an election, catching Saddam, whatever it is -- they like it." And so if violence can be tamped down, it could defuse some public hostility.
If that happens, the White House hopes the troop buildup then will succeed in bringing enough stability to Baghdad by August that U.S. forces can withdraw to the city outskirts. And officials said it must be sustained. "By the end of the year, Baghdad's got to look significantly different," said a National Security Council official not authorized to speak on the record.
Democrats believe that Bush made a fundamental mistake. Had he embraced the Iraq Study Group, or even made a show of embracing some of its elements, he could have called the Democrats' bluff about wanting to work together, party strategists said. "That would have really jammed us," said a top congressional Democratic aide.
The study group proposed shifting the U.S. mission to support and training, withdrawing combat forces by early 2008, embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi units, threatening to reduce aid to the Iraqi government unless it makes progress, negotiating with Iran and Syria and reinvigorating the Israeli-Arab peace process. But to the consternation of Democrats, the U.S. troop pullout would not be locked into a strict timetable and would depend on ground conditions.
"This was a real missed opportunity," said Leon E. Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who served on the panel. "No president can conduct a war without the support of the American people and without the support of the Congress. That's the lesson of history." While some officials saw the report as an opportunity to change course, Panetta said, "I think deep down, they viewed it as a sign of weakness to abide by an outside group's recommendation."
Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), another panel member, said that Bush's plan is "better than the status quo" but voiced disappointment that he did not agree to talk with Syria and Iran. "Nothing is ever solved by not talking to somebody," he said. Simpson said he was stunned by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement that Iran could use talks with the United States to extort concessions. "Where did that come from?" he asked. " What the hell is gained by not thinking of some kind of system to talk? It makes no sense."
Now, since Bush has rejected it, some Democrats have begun touting the Iraq Study Group plan as an alternative despite previous misgivings, attempting to position themselves as bipartisan. "We have all endorsed the Iraq Study Group -- that is our plan," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. The White House denied that it dismissed the report, noting that the panel said it could support a short-term troop increase to help stabilize Baghdad. The panel "gave a lot of very valuable advice, much of which is incorporated into the president's plan," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
Philip D. Zelikow, who as Rice's counselor was intimately involved in Iraq policymaking before stepping down recently, said great thought was given to how to satisfy at least some Democrats. "If you were in our shoes, what is the approach that would satisfy the Democrats?" he asked. "That's not an easy question to answer" given the diversity of views within the party.
The policy review showed a lack of discipline unusual for the Bush administration. At first, the White House planned to announce a new plan for Iraq before Christmas. Then, amid serious internal disagreement, it postponed it until mid-January. At the same time, the once-leakproof administration poured out details of the debate, making clear that generals were resisting a troop increase.
For all that, some allies said, the administration was doomed to bipartisan criticism regardless of how it handled the review and presentation. "You've got a Democratic Party that doesn't believe in Bush, doesn't believe in the war," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "You've got a Republican Party that thinks Bush cost them the election. They could have done it better, but I'm not sure it would've made much difference."
Yet even Kristol, a strong proponent of sending more troops, expressed aggravation at the White House for not showing more urgency about getting Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus dispatched to the region as the new Middle East commander. Asked why it hasn't happened, Kristol said: "Because it's the Bush administration. Maybe you haven't noticed -- they're not the most competent at executing the war."