Who's Making the Call?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 18, 2006; 1:16 PM

Whose advice does President Bush take most seriously on Iraq?

If the goal is figuring out which way the president is headed, the press corps could do the public a big favor by reporting on who is whispering in his ear.

Most likely, the chief whisperer is Vice President Cheney -- in which case the back-and-forth over whether Bush will change course is sort of pointless. Bush has made some pretty dramatic about-faces in the past. The same cannot be said of the vice president.

In either case, Bush's evident leaning toward a troop "surge" in Iraq suggests that the very central issue of troop strength is no longer simply up to the American military commanders -- if it ever was.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?"

Some observers think he will be pragmatic. Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, tells Baker: "He's going to do outreach. . . . He is a total realist. He knows that the solid, march-in-step Republicans, at least in the House, are gone. . . . Now his legacy depends on the national interest, not partisanship."

But, as Baker puts it so understatedly: "Others don't buy it. . . .

"Critics predicted that any new strategy he announces after the holidays will be little more than a dressed-up version of 'stay the course.' And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans do not think Bush is willing to change his policies in Iraq.

"'I just don't believe that this president, with this vice president whispering in his ear every moment, is oriented to change,' said retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Bush's first term. 'And even if he were, I don't believe his administration is capable of implementing change.'"

Joseph Galloway writes in a blistering column for the McClatchy-Tribune Information Service: "The word on the street, or in the Pentagon rings, is that he'll choose to beef up American forces on the ground in Iraq by 20,000 to 30,000 troops by various sleight-of-hand maneuvers -- extending the combat tours of soldiers and Marines who are nearing an end to their second or third year in hell and accelerating the shipment of others into that hell -- and send them into the bloody streets of Baghdad. . . .

"This hardly amounts to a 'new way forward,' unless that definition includes a new path deeper into the quicksand of a tribal and religious civil war in which whatever Bush eventually decides is already inadequate and immaterial. . . .

"The White House hopes that its much-trumpeted reshuffling of a failed strategy and flawed tactics will buy time for its luck to change miraculously. That this time will be paid for with the lives and futures of our soldiers and Marines -- and their families -- apparently means little to these wise men who've never heard a shot fired in anger.

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