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ANALYSIS

Next President Will Discover If U.S. Footprint Stabilizes Iraq

Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, are in Washington this week to update Congress on the status of the Iraq war. Senate hearings on Tuesday gave three leading contenders for the White House a chance to question both Petraeus and Crocker and promote their approaches to the five-year-old war.

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By Michael Abramowitz and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008

In deciding to leave behind a large presence of U.S. forces in Iraq at the end of his term, President Bush has made clear that he believes he will be doing the next president a favor, with more troops boosting the chances that his successor will inherit a more stable country.

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But many leading Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- worry that the president is squandering a unique opportunity to pressure the Iraqi leaders toward critical political compromises. Democrats, in particular, believe that Bush's decision to embrace Gen. David H. Petraeus's recommendation to postpone further troop withdrawals this summer could backfire, leaving the next commander in chief with an overstretched military and a more intractable political situation inside Iraq.

The time to begin a withdrawal is now, Susan Rice, a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said in an interview yesterday. "The longer we stay, the more Americans die and more costly this becomes in lives and treasure," she said.

In hearings Tuesday and yesterday, even Republicans pressed Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker on whether the administration is doing enough to capitalize on the presence of U.S. troops to push the Iraqis toward political progress. Lawmakers cited a long-term security agreement now being negotiated between the United States and Iraq as an opportunity to encourage Iraqi leaders to hold provincial elections, pass oil legislation and take other key steps.

"I look upon [this] as an opportunity to say to the Iraqis: This is your chance, and we want a greater momentum towards political reconciliation," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

The president has frequently spoken in public and private about his desire to leave a stable Iraq for his successor, an objective that seemed implausible amid spiraling sectarian violence in 2006. Aides said this impulse animated his decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year and that it colors every aspect of his Iraq policy, from negotiations on the security agreement to efforts to forge political compromises in Iraq.

But as Petraeus and Crocker suggested in testimony this week, prospects for reaching the president's goal remain ambiguous, given the ongoing violence and the political strife. One thing seemed clear from their joint congressional appearance: The next president will inherit a sizable footprint of U.S. forces in Iraq, probably not far below the "pre-surge" number to which U.S. troop levels are supposed to fall by July, about 140,000. Bush is scheduled to make a formal announcement on his plans today.

In the view of some of Bush's supporters -- and some renegade Democrats -- this posture amounts not only to smart policy but also to something of a gift to a future president, whether Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Bush's posture means, they said, that Petraeus will have the tools to try to keep violence under control while Crocker continues to make what they consider progress toward political reconciliation.

"From the interests of the next president, the best thing this president could do for the next is to keep all 15 [combat] brigades there and give Dave Petraeus and Ryan Crocker everything they need," said Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "It is likely to allow this president to put the next president in the position to do something that is likely to make everybody in the country happy -- which is to withdraw troops in a responsible fashion," said Pollack, who has been at odds with fellow Democrats over Iraq policy.

Other Democrats disputed that assessment, not least of all the two candidates for the presidential nomination, who have made clear their desire to begin troop reductions right away. "Senator Clinton believes President Bush should begin an orderly withdrawal process right now, because it is our greatest leverage to kick-start serious national reconciliation in Iraq," said Lee Feinstein, the national security director for the Clinton campaign.

McCain, by contrast, has been a strong supporter of the course recommended by Petraeus. One of McCain's foreign policy advisers, Randy Scheunemann, said in an interview that Iraq has seen "significant and dramatic gains in security" over the past year and the beginning of political progress as well.

Some Democrats are skeptical of Bush's motives, saying that the president and other Republicans are trying to shift blame to when the next president begins a more rapid troop drawdown -- one that will be necessary, they say, to salvage the health of the U.S. armed forces.

"We all know it's going to happen," said Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to a troop drawdown. "He is going to do what Lyndon Johnson did: make sure the war was not lost on his watch."

But for their part, some Bush aides dismiss the notion that the president is trying to saddle his successor with a major troop presence in Iraq unless it is absolutely necessary. "The president wants more troops to come out when possible," said one senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly before the president's speech today. "Everyone is hopeful that the conditions on the ground are good to allow that number to come down."

Peter D. Feaver, a former Bush national security aide, also questioned the idea that Bush is trying to keep the footprint in Iraq "artificially" high. "He knows that the surge has imposed a serious strain on ground forces and the sooner that strain can be lifted, the sooner the strategy can be made sustainable," he said.

In their testimony, Petraeus and Crocker pushed back at the suggestion that the threat of troop withdrawal is a magic bullet that will spur reconciliation.

"I don't think any nation wants to have to rely on outside forces for their internal security," Crocker said. "So it's not so much that we've got to constantly press them to do things so that we don't have to, it's more kind of guiding and channeling and helping them see over the short-term horizon."


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