By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007
CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 24 -- Despite political pressure for a change of course in Iraq, the White House hopes to keep in place its existing military strategy and troop levels there after the mid-September report from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, administration officials said.
Even as the administration faced a new call this week from Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a leading ally, to begin at least a symbolic withdrawal of troops by Christmas, White House officials said privately that they are not contemplating making major shifts before early next year. They said that next month's report is likely to highlight what they see as significant improvements in security over the past year and that they expect the president to assert that now is not the time to dramatically change approaches.
One senior White House official expressed the prevailing mood, saying he does not expect a "wholesale change in plans" next month.
But White House officials said they do expect Petraeus and Bush to begin outlining what a "post-surge" strategy might look like. They said the key date is April 2008, when the military will have to begin bringing units home unless it is willing to extend troop rotations from 15 to 18 months.
Another senior official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House thinking more freely, said he expects the U.S. presence to return to pre-buildup levels of 15 combat brigades and about 130,000 troops a year from now, down from about 160,000. "We all know where we want to get to," this official said. "We all know that there will be a long-term robust troop presence that will outlast this president."
All the officials cautioned that the situation is fluid. Many fully expect the insurgents to attempt a spectacular attack in the next several weeks, and several said they have not heard even privately from Petraeus about the contents of his report. They said they expect Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to give the White House some preliminary idea of his thinking next week.
The question for the White House is whether the prospect of keeping a large force in Iraq will survive the politics of Capitol Hill, where Democrats are pushing for steep reductions. Bush is also likely to come under pressure from some military advisers to accelerate the reductions because of concerns that the military might get overstretched.
But in conversations over the past several days, a number of senior White House officials and close allies outside the administration indicated their belief that the political debate in Washington has moved in the administration's favor this month, pointing in particular to a number of Democrats who have spoken positively of some security improvements in Iraq.
The one major exception was the statement this week from Warner, a respected GOP voice on national security issues, who surprised the White House on Thursday with a public call for troop withdrawals beginning in December. White House officials sought to play down Warner's comments yesterday, noting that the senator was not calling for a specific timetable for reductions, which the president has fiercely resisted.
Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), the House Republican leader, said in an interview that the reports he has been receiving from his colleagues over the past several weeks suggest that they are feeling less nervous about the situation in Iraq and that the president "is better positioned than he has been over the last six months."
Peter H. Wehner, who recently left a senior staff job at the White House, added: "The security side was in very bad shape for a very long time, and that's changing. And that's stabilizing the situation on the Hill." Regarding next month, he said, referring to Petraeus: "I don't think you will be seeing any major change at all. You have the right man and the right strategy, and it wouldn't be the right time to change."
Democratic congressional aides also said they are not expecting major changes from Bush next month, but they said the president is far from safe politically. They said it will not be clear whether moderate Republicans will stick with the president -- the key to Bush's political survival on Iraq -- until members of Congress return early next month from their summer recess.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said by e-mail: "Further pursuit of the administration's flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation's best interests. Every day that we continue to stick to the president's flawed strategy is a day that America is not as secure as it could be."
The official White House position is that no decisions will be made by the president until after he hears from Petraeus and Crocker, as well as from other top advisers and lawmakers. But there seems little doubt that the White House will argue that the current military strategy has enjoyed some success. Pointing to this week's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, one White House official said that "it's a different situation than we faced a year ago," when security seemed to be collapsing throughout Baghdad.
But the estimate also expressed little hope for a political accommodation among Iraq's feuding leaders, and officials acknowledge that the Iraqi government is likely to miss many of the benchmarks for political progress set by Congress. That's why White House officials plan to contend that that some of the goals behind the benchmarks are being met in spirit: They noted that Iraq's oil revenue is effectively being shared throughout Iraq's 18 provinces, even in Sunni areas, even though the parliament has not passed a law on that distribution -- a key benchmark.
"The shelf life of a benchmark is pretty questionable," said one official. "They're probably not the benchmarks that even observers outside the administration would pick today."
Several outside analysts close to the administration said they expect Bush to respond to the reports from Petraeus and Crocker by offering some hints of how the U.S. strategy might evolve over the next year -- even if he does not move to change course in the short term -- in an effort to keep the bottom from falling out of the administration's remaining support in Congress.
"The reports themselves are reasonably predictable. I don't think there are likely to be significant new revelations about conditions in Iraq," said Philip D. Zelikow, a former State Department aide who was involved in Iraq policy. "The question for the administration coming up is: What is the credible strategy for a sustainable U.S. posture in Iraq extending through 2008 and beyond?"
Staff writers Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.