As the British announced the beginning of their departure from Iraq yesterday, President Bush's top foreign policy aide proclaimed it "basically a good-news story." Yet for an already besieged White House, the decision was doing a good job masquerading as a bad-news story.
What national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley meant was that the British believe they have made enough progress in southern Iraq to turn over more of their sector to Iraqi forces. To many back in Washington, though, what resonated was that Bush's main partner in Iraq is starting to get out just as the president is sending in more U.S. troops.
No matter the military merits, the British move, followed by a similar announcement by Denmark, roiled the political debate in Washington at perhaps the worst moment for the White House. Democrats seized on the news as evidence that Bush's international coalition is collapsing and that the United States is increasingly alone in a losing cause. Even some Republicans, and, in private, White House aides, agreed that the announcement sent an ill-timed message to the American public.
"What I'm worried about is that the American public will be quite perplexed by the president adding forces while our principal ally is subtracting forces," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a longtime war supporter who opposes Bush's troop increase. "That is the burden we are being left with here."
The notion that the British pullback actually signals success sounds like bad spin, added Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "I think it's Alice in Wonderland looking through the looking glass," he said.
White House officials said they had known for a while that the British were moving in this direction and that Prime Minister Tony Blair informed Bush of his decision during a secure videoconference Tuesday. But the rest of Washington was taken by surprise, and Republicans were put back on their heels, just as they were beginning to feel more confident that the fight over war strategy was shifting their way.
The House last week approved a nonbinding resolution opposing the president's planned deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Baghdad and Anbar province in western Iraq. But Republicans have since been on offense, hammering a House Democratic plan that would tie war funding in a supplemental spending bill to strict new standards for resting, equipping and training troops.
The strategy, championed by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and endorsed in principle by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was supposed to neutralize GOP charges that Democrats plan to "de-fund" the war, while forcing Republicans to defend the deployment of troops who are not rated fully trained and equipped. But Republicans labeled it a "slow bleed" strategy that would leave troops in harm's way by blocking their reinforcements.
Vice President Cheney was the latest to jump on Murtha's plan, yesterday calling it "a huge mistake" and a "policy of defeat" that would embolden terrorists.
"If we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al-Qaeda strategy," he told ABC News in Japan, where he is traveling. "The al-Qaeda strategy is to break the will of the American people."
Pelosi bristled at the attack, issuing a statement complaining that Cheney was besmirching her patriotism and calling on Bush to "repudiate and distance himself from the Vice President's remark."
The news of Britain's partial withdrawal, though, swamped the funding debate for at least a day. "The timing of the British announcement is very unfortunate," said Nile Gardiner, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The British decision is going to be used as a political football by opponents of the president's Iraq plan."
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said the move will undercut Republicans in Congress trying to stave off attempts to limit what Bush can do in Iraq.
"It's probably not going to bode well for those of us who want to make a case against what Murtha and Pelosi plan for the supplemental," LaHood said. "It does not help."
Blair's announcement could also boost calls by Democrats and some Republicans for a serious change in Iraq policy -- not just in the number of troops fighting but also in what those troops should do. The British plan to withdraw 2,100 of 7,100 troops by summer's end and to redeploy the remainder away from combat toward more training of Iraqi troops and patrolling the Iranian border. That mirrors bipartisan Senate proposals for U.S. forces that are spelled out in two stalled nonbinding resolutions, including one co-sponsored by Warner.
"What the British are doing, and what we really need to do, is to tease out the cultural complexities of this thing," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.). "On the one hand, they are signaling to all the Iraqi people, whatever sect they are -- Sunnis, Shias, Kurds -- they are not going to be an occupying force. That's a powerful signal to send. And the other signal is that they are passing the torch to the Iraqis, who are the only ones who can handle this ancient -- I'd say primitive -- sectarian dispute."
The White House argued that comparing the British situation in Basra and the U.S. position in Baghdad fundamentally distorts reality. The south, where the British have been in charge, has no Sunni insurgency and far less violence than Baghdad or Anbar. The coalition plan all along has been to pull out foreign troops when an area is ready for Iraqi control, the White House said.
"The fact that they have made some progress on the ground is going to enable them to move some of the forces out, and that's ultimately the kind of thing that we want to be able to see throughout Iraq," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. He said no consideration was given to asking the British to instead redeploy those departing troops to help their U.S. counterparts in Baghdad or Anbar.
Hadley, speaking to reporters in Brussels, where he was traveling, said he did not mean to suggest the British departure signals "an unalloyed picture of progress," but he rejected a more negative interpretation. "I didn't want people to think it reflected a lack of confidence by the British in the mission or a turning away from the mission," he said. "It is not."
Still, other administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could talk candidly about political strategy, expressed frustration that the British decision will look bad to everyday Americans, and acknowledged that it will provide ammunition to domestic opponents.
"It's a brick in the hands of folks who want to take cheap shots," one official said. "But I think it's unfair."