By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007
As he prepares to provide Congress and the nation a progress report on Iraq this week, President Bush has sought to reframe the domestic political battle over the war, putting himself in a position to do something his critics have long advocated: Begin drawing down the huge U.S. troop presence.
Only two months ago, the bottom seemed to be falling out of the president's support among congressional Republicans, and the debate centered on whether lawmakers should impose a timetable for withdrawal. Now, Bush's backing among Republicans appears to have stabilized, and even Democrats are arguing over how many troops should stay in Iraq and what their mission should be.
Bush -- and the war -- remain unpopular beyond his core Republican supporters, but some Democrats concede that they do not have the power to force him to change course any time soon.
"The White House hasn't gained ground," observed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) yesterday. "But, at least as of now, we have not seen droves of Republicans voting to say they will change direction."
Congressional Republicans, especially conservatives, are convinced that Bush has gained strength on Iraq over the past few months. "I think he's improved his position," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who is expected to run for the Senate seat of retiring Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). "You've got Democrats now saying, 'Look, guys, we cannot do some of the things we had wanted to do.' "
The key question is how Bush will use his new political breathing space. The president, returning today from an economic summit in Sydney, plans to lay out his plans for Iraq in an address to the nation, probably on Thursday night, administration officials said yesterday. It will follow the Capitol Hill testimony Monday and Tuesday of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker on security and political progress in Iraq. But Bush is already dropping hints that he wants to move to a smaller footprint in Iraq. Just how fast that transition would be is far from clear.
Visiting Anbar province last Monday, the president said for the first time that his advisers have told him that it might be possible to provide the same level of security with fewer troops. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has indicated privately that he could live with a token pullout of a brigade early next year.
Leon E. Panetta, a Clinton White House chief of staff and a member of the Iraq Study Group, said yesterday that the president does not want to be seen as being forced into anything -- but can now claim that military progress makes it possible to begin a process of withdrawal.
"All along, that's been his biggest problem: feeling comfortable that he's winning and can begin a process of pulling back," Panetta said in an interview. "I think he knows what he wants to do, but he has to feel comfortable that he got there 'my way.' "
Others close to the president suggest that he may be motivated by two other factors. One is the looming end of his presidency and his desire to put Iraq policy on a more sustainable basis for the next president. The other is that the president knows he will have to begin withdrawing troops by April, as 15-month troop rotations come to a close. That means the pressure is on for an alternative strategy, with a smaller force structure in Iraq.
What is unknown is whether Bush wants to merely return to the pre-buildup level of about 130,000 troops in Iraq, or whether he would countenance steeper cuts and a radically altered mission after April. Petraeus seems to be suggesting privately that he wants to wait to make sure that gains from the buildup are fully realized before making deeper reductions, officials said.
White House officials are suggesting that the general's views will carry great weight with Bush. "He is following through on his commitment to be guided by the people on the ground who know the most about what's going on," White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said.
Bolten and other White House officials offered few clues about what Bush will say this week, saying they do not want to preempt the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker.
"He needs to take their recommendations, step back and put it in the broader context of why we are there, and talk more broadly about the U.S. presence in the Middle East," Bolten said.
Bush has appeared energized by the events of the past few weeks. Meeting with tribal leaders in Anbar province last Monday, the president even showed empathy when the sheiks complained about a lack of money from Baghdad, officials said. As governor of Texas, Bush said, he had asked for more federal funds from Washington -- and often did not get them, either.
Bush later traveled to Australia, where he told one politician, "We're kicking ass" in Iraq, according to media reports there. The White House did not disavow the statement.
Van Hollen noted that that was not the headline of the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was very pessimistic about the political future of Iraq. Bush's comment, he said, "reflects the fact that the president is really detached from any realistic view of what is going on."
But Bush said yesterday at Hawaii's Hickam Air Force Base that he "came back from Iraq encouraged by what I saw. No question there's still hard work to do, but my resolve is as strong as it's ever been."
The president added: "I believe we're doing the right thing there for the security of the country and for the peace of the world."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Robin Wright contributed to this report.