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Time for 'Plan B-H' in Iraq?

A U.S. soldier on patrol south of Baghdad.
A U.S. soldier on patrol south of Baghdad. (By Maya Alleruzzo -- Associated Press)

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, May 31, 2007

President Bush said publicly last Thursday what his top aides have been discussing privately for weeks. He talked about a transition to "a different configuration" in Iraq after the surge of U.S. troops is completed this summer. When pressed on whether he was talking about a post-surge Plan B, Bush answered: "Actually, I would call that a plan recommended by Baker-Hamilton, so that would be a Plan B-H."

Let's make sure we've got that right: This would be the same Baker-Hamilton plan whose authors were lampooned by the conservative New York Post in December as "surrender monkeys"? The same Baker-Hamilton report that seemed to be all but buried by Bush's January embrace of a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq?

Yes, that same Baker-Hamilton plan now seems to be official White House policy. Administration officials insist that the president supported it all along, though you could have fooled me. Now it's back -- six months later than it should have been, with six extra months of political poison to corrode its bipartisan spirit. But better late than never.

Where is Bush heading with Plan B-H? That question is causing some head-scratching among U.S. military commanders and diplomats in Baghdad, members of Congress and foreign governments. So let us try to read the tea leaves:

What drove the White House discussion of post-surge strategy was a sense that the political timeline in Washington was out of sync with the military one in Baghdad. The U.S. clock needed to be slowed down, while the one in Iraq needed to be speeded up. The best way to synchronize clocks, officials concluded, was a less ambitious but more sustainable policy -- one that emphasized the training of the Iraqi army, U.S. Special Forces missions against al-Qaeda, a diplomatic opening to Iran and a reduction in U.S. troops. The shorthand name for this policy was Baker-Hamilton.

On the domestic political front, White House officials realized that last week's victory in passing a war-funding bill could be short-lived. Funding would run out again at the end of September, and there were growing signs that Republicans would join Democrats in calling for a troop withdrawal. Before that September vote, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, would be making a crucial progress report. It was unlikely that Petraeus would be able to proclaim such glowing success that congressional criticism would disappear, and in any event officials were wary of putting all their eggs in that basket. Political reality required a reduction in U.S. troops during 2008, rather than an open-ended surge.

The internal debate seems to have been quite open for a White House that sometimes appears to be operating in a bubble. Officials say it helped that the president has a new team on Iraq -- from White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus.

The question now is whether Plan B-H can regain the bipartisan ground on which the Iraq Study Group framed its recommendations last December. Administration officials see little sign so far that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is willing to lay down the cudgel, but they didn't expect she would. Observes one official: "Will Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Democratic leader] Harry Reid stand next to the president and say, 'We're glad he finally saw the light'? No."

While the Democratic leadership isn't likely to join Bush in a top-down push for consensus, White House officials hope that by embracing Baker-Hamilton, they can begin to build out from a new center. The goal is a policy that has broad enough support that it could last into the next administration.

The best hope for pulling off this three-cushion shot lies, paradoxically, in the diplomatic discussions with Iran that began Monday in Baghdad. Sources say that during their four-hour meeting, Crocker and his Iranian counterpart described in almost identical terms the two countries' shared interest in the success of Iraq's Shiite-led government. Crocker insisted that the Iranians back up those words with deeds -- by halting the shipment of deadly projectile bombs and the training of Shiite militiamen in their use. If Tehran takes that step, then Plan B-H may be for real.

What's needed is time: Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, seemed to recognize this when he told the Financial Times that although he favored a plan for eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, "immediate withdrawal could lead to chaos, civil war, could turn Iraq into a failed state. This is a fact. No one is asking for immediate withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq."

Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told me last December that a quick U.S. withdrawal would be "immoral." But do U.S. politicians agree? We'll find out this summer.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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