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Is That All There Is?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 2:34 PM

After more than a month of frenzied anticipation, President Bush's speech last night was such a limp letdown -- with the notable exception of provocative, bellicose words aimed at Iran and Syria -- that it raises the question: What is he really up to?

Could his secret goal be to run out the clock, and leave Iraq to his successor? Might he be setting the stage for an exit on his terms -- giving the Iraqis one last chance, and if they blow it, then he withdraws? Is it even possible that he is beginning the process of shifting the attention of the military -- and the American public -- from Iraq to Iran?

Those theories may sound a bit conspiratorial, but Bush's new proposal is so internally contradictory, so incremental, so problematically dependent on Iraqi good behavior, and so unlikely to galvanize public support that it seems to me that it's open season on alternate explanations of his motivation.

There is, for instance, an irresolvable contradiction between Bush's insistence on the necessity of winning, because the alternative is cataclysmic, and his demand that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks, or else.

What does he mean by or else? He won't say.

Is he talking about a coup? Presumably he means we would pull out if they don't meet their benchmarks. But how can he plausibly threaten to pull out -- which, of course, happens to be what a majority of Americans and Iraqis now want -- if he continues to insist that pulling out would put America in mortal danger, not to mention detonate the entire Middle East?

The only thing Bush would say last night about the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks was this: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." Some threat. That already happened long ago.

Anonymous White House officials tied themselves into rhetorical pretzels yesterday insisting that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is no longer open-ended -- without giving any indication of how it might close.

"The President has gotten the strategy that he believes will succeed and is the best prospect of success," a senior administration official said in a White House background briefing. "Now, everybody is going to want to say, well, what if it doesn't work, what is plan B, and all the rest. And I think, for obvious reasons, for the President and for senior administration officials, we're going to focus on what we need to do to make this plan work."

But in fact, David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Bush's aides yesterday quietly "hinted that the administration had already come up with a 'Plan B' in case the latest strategy failed, with one saying 'there are other ways to achieve our objective.' But he would not describe that strategy, or say if it involved withdrawal, containment or the breakup of the country into sectarian entities."

Or running out the clock, or bombing Iran, or who knows what else.

In other words, it's anyone's guess what Plan B is. With Plan A so unlikely to succeed, figuring out what Plan B is becomes an imperative. Let the digging -- and, barring that, the guessing -- begin.

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