Change Of Course?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, June 12, 2006; 1:18 PM

Could President Bush be getting ready to declare victory in Iraq and get out?

Bush aides have been sending an odd combination of signals these last several days from the White House and Camp David. On the one hand, they're officially tamping down expectations of a troop withdrawal announcement. But on the other hand, there are signs of an unusual amount of commotion within Bush's inner circle.

Bush's two-day Camp David summit could end up to be just a substanceless attempt to bamboozle a gloomy public with repackaged rhetoric about a hopeful future.

But the president is riding high for the moment on two bits of unqualifiedly good news -- the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of a new government in Iraq -- while overall facing a public overwhelmingly critical of his decision-making and adamant that U.S. troops should start coming home.

If he was ever going to change course, could there be a better time?

Declaring that the Iraqi government is now in charge (even if it's not, really) and establishing a timetable for the return home of American troops would be a dramatic and hugely popular way of -- to use a metaphor from a previous conflict -- showing the public that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Sure, Bush has long said that establishing a timetable for troop withdrawal would only help the enemy. But when pragmatism demands it, he is more than adept at changing his mind about things, citing altered circumstances, and all the while insisting that he is being consistent. (See, for instance, his reverse-course on talking with Iran two weeks ago.)

The Signs

Here's a real tea-leaf: Bush aides typically wave off such reports, but today's "Morning Update" e-mail from the press office actually calls attention to a Washington Times story by Eric Pfeiffer about troop-withdrawal talk from outside the White House.

"The top U.S. military commander in Iraq yesterday predicted a gradual drop in American troops deployed there through next year, while Iraq's new national security adviser said all multinational forces could be out of his country by 2008," Pfeiffer writes.

"Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie went further, giving both a number and a prediction of how soon most U.S. troops will have left his country.

"'By the end of the year, of this year, I believe that the number of the multinational forces will be probably less than 100,000 in this country,' Mr. Rubaie told CNN's 'Late Edition.'"

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "White House officials have said announcements of force reductions are not expected. Yet the top U.S. commander in Baghdad predicted on the eve of the meeting that coalition troops will gradually move out of the country in the coming months. . . .

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