Can Bush Negotiate?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 2, 2007; 2:16 PM

With the public resoundingly against him, Republican support wearing thin, and -- most importantly -- Congress in Democratic hands, President Bush today finds himself in the unusual position of actually having to negotiate.

The question is: Does he have it in him?

A day after vetoing legislation that would have established a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Bush has invited congressional leaders to the White House for a sit-down.

"I am confident that with goodwill on both sides, we can agree on a bill that gets our troops the money and flexibility they need as soon as possible," Bush said in a short televised address last night, announcing the veto.

But the president's language was inflexible: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," he said. "All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq. I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

With no apparent sense of irony, Bush described the Democratic plan as "a prescription for chaos and confusion."

So what happens now? Will Bush refuse to genuinely engage with his critics? (His traditional response to Democrats who disagree with him.) Will he try to find some way to make it look like he's compromising when he really isn't? (His traditional response to Republicans who disagree with him.) Or will he start talking in earnest about ways both sides can compromise?

The conventional wisdom is that the White House's big concession will be to entertain discussions about benchmarks for the Iraqi government. But it's important to keep in mind that the White House has been talking about such benchmarks for many months now. In his prime-time address in January, Bush even announced: "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

The administration has even previously indicated it had some deadlines in mind for those benchmarks. It's just that none of them have been met. On the same day in January that Bush made his announcement, senior administration officials promised that the Iraqis would deliver three additional Iraqi brigades to Baghdad by the end of February. That didn't happen. And the following day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged in Senate testimony that without progress toward some key benchmarks within "one or two months . . . this plan is not going to work." It's now been four months, with little or no progress. (For background and links, see my Thursday column, Keep Your Eye on the Benchmarks.)

So the central issue is not whether there are benchmarks, or even timetables. The central issue is whether failure to meet those benchmarks has any genuine consequences -- and whether those consequences include the withdrawal of American forces.

This Just In

I haven't had a chance to look at it closely yet, but here is the transcript from Bush's remarks today to a friendly group of builders.

I noted in yesterday's column (see the section on "Lowering the Goalposts") that Bush seemed to be in the process of shifting his definition of success in Iraq.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company