By Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
President Bush, facing a growing Republican revolt against his Iraq policy, has rejected calls to change course but will launch a campaign emphasizing his intent to draw down U.S. forces next year and move toward a more limited mission if security conditions improve, senior officials said yesterday.
Top administration officials have begun talking with key Senate Republicans to walk them through his view of the next phase in the war, beyond the troop increase he announced six months ago today. Bush plans to lay out what an aide called "his vision for the post-surge" starting in Cleveland today to assure the nation that he, too, wants to begin bringing troops home eventually.
The White House devised the political strategy after days of intense internal discussions about how to respond to several prominent Republican senators who have broken with Bush's war policy recently. Bush decided against heeding their proposal to begin redeploying U.S. troops as early as this summer, but he and his team concluded that he needed to shift his message to show that he shares the goals of his increasingly restless Republican caucus and the broader public.
"Look, the president understands the American people are frustrated," said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging Bush. "We've been at this a long time. We've sacrificed some of our best and brightest. . . . But they want to see that we have a vision for success that will allow us to gradually downsize our role and reduce our footprint. The president needs to and wants to remind everybody that he shares that frustration."
To do that, Bush intends to argue that Congress and the public should look past this week's scheduled status report on Iraq and wait for the fuller assessment due in September. A drawdown, administration officials said, must be the result of the troop increase, not in place of it. "The drawdown is an effect," the official said. "It's not a cause."
Yet key Republican senators have indicated that they would not be satisfied with a change in political spin over a real change in strategy. In a speech on the Senate floor after a White House meeting yesterday, John W. Warner (R-Va.) set the tone, declaring this "a time in our history unlike any I have ever witnessed before." Warner recalled that Congress has voted to require Bush to demonstrate progress in Iraq or detail how he will alter his strategy, adding that he warned the White House to take it seriously.
"I was asked by the press whether I thought they'd brush it off," Warner said of the White House, "and I resoundingly replied, 'No.' "
The current political challenge comes at a time when Bush has been talking increasingly with advisers about what situation he will leave behind in Iraq for his successor. Although he said in 2005 that "I will settle for nothing less than complete victory," Bush has concluded, with just 18 months left in office, that he will have to settle for less.
So the president has mapped out a best-case scenario for Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009, that would still see considerable numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, but in a different role. If events work out as Bush hopes, aides said, U.S. forces by then will have sharply reduced their mission, pulling out of sectarian combat and focusing instead on fighting al-Qaeda, guarding Iraq's borders and supporting Iraqi troops. Instead of operating under a U.N. mandate, the United States would negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government for a smaller, long-term presence.
Such a reduced mandate would resemble the vision advanced in December by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). A Pentagon study last year concluded that even the more limited mission would require about 120,000 U.S. troops, compared with about 160,000 today, according to administration officials. But officials said it could be done with 60,000 to 100,000 troops.
Bush hopes the net result would be a situation stable enough that the next president -- even a Democrat with an antiwar platform -- would feel confident enough to sustain some form of U.S. mission despite domestic pressure to pull out altogether. But Bush aides said they are acutely aware that every forecast they have made for Iraq over the past four years has proved wildly optimistic.
Moreover, they recognize that their options will be limited unless they first stop the political erosion at home. The defections of prominent Republican Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) caught the White House off guard and prompted furious discussions about what to do, forcing national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to cut short a family visit to return to Washington and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to scrub a trip to Latin America.
Hadley and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president's new Iraq war coordinator, met yesterday with Warner, a skeptic of the president's war policy who will manage the Republican side of debates over Iraq proposals. Afterward, Warner said he would defer making his own proposals until he hears the president report publicly this week.
War-funding legislation passed in May mandated two progress reports from the White House, the first due on Sunday and the second Sept. 15. The July report originally was seen as a midterm assessment, with the real stakes lying in the fall report by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the top military and civilian officials in Iraq, who will testify before Congress.
But the absence of much visible progress in Iraq and a rise in public and congressional opposition mean that "July has become the new September," in the words of one official. Virtually the entire national security bureaucracy on Iraq -- including the intelligence agencies, State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council -- is involved in putting together this week's report and Bush's statement on it, which should be released by Friday.
Senior administration and military officials closely involved in Iraq policy have indicated that the Iraqis are unlikely to meet any of the security and political goals Bush set for them when he announced his new strategy Jan. 10. Those goals, including provincial elections, new power-sharing arrangements among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups and increased responsibility for Iraqi security forces, were incorporated as mandatory benchmarks in the war-funding legislation.
One of the intellectual authors of Bush's troop increase dismissed the importance of such goals. "I always thought those were unreasonable benchmarks," Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, said at a forum yesterday. "I always thought it was a mistake for the administration to go down that road."
Kagan and another surge supporter, retired Army Gen. John Keane, said the extra troops, the last of whom arrived just weeks ago, are having an impact and should be allowed to stay long enough to make it last. "In my judgment, the security situation is making steady, deliberate progress," Keane said. But he said that to succeed, "the operation has to continue into '08."
Although it initially envisioned a troop increase lasting six to eight months, the administration lately has anticipated keeping the extra troops in place until next spring and then beginning to pull them back, one brigade at a time. Logistically, senior military officials have said, it would be extremely difficult to sustain such a force in Iraq beyond March or April. Bush has said he wanted to then shift to a more limited mission and presence. But amid all the debate, said one aide, "the argument has been lost of late," which is why the president plans to make a new sustained effort to talk about it this week.
"What the president has said all along is, of course, we're going to draw down," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "But you have to draw down when it makes sense to do so. And furthermore, what he said is, 'Everybody, take a look first at what's going on.' "
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.