Bush's Iraq Dilemma

George W. Bush passed through seven time zones from Amman, Jordan, Thursday to land in Washington at 4 p.m., resting briefly before embarking on the annual round of White House Christmas parties. The nightly six-hour chore of handshaking and photo-posing was followed by sitting through the endless annual honors presentation at the Kennedy Center Sunday night. This regimen, for a president who likes to fine-tune and limit his schedule, fits his loss of control over Iraq.

The notion bruited about Washington that James A. Baker is a deus ex machina imposed by President Bush to resolve the entangled Iraqi plot is nonsense. The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, is out of the White House sphere of influence. The White House certainly did not ask Congress for help by creating this commission. Baker has made sure that the report, though leaked in part to the press, has not gone to the White House.

As a creature of Congress (an institution that Bush dislikes), Baker’s group spells trouble for Bush when it releases its report Wednesday. It will propose, however muted its tone, gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq before the president is ready for it. The hope is that Baker will nuance the report’s words sufficiently and hedge calls for withdrawal in such a way that Bush can say that is what he has been doing anyway.

Bush has not stepped back from the decisions he has made on Iraq. At the core of Bush’s Iraq dilemma is the fact, still denied at the White House, that the president has lost his political base on the overriding issue of the war. In contact mainly with fawning campaign contributors, Bush may not appreciate the steady decline in support of his war policy that I have seen deepening among Republicans in the past year.

This undercurrent of GOP protest roared to the surface with the party’s election debacle Nov. 7. At the Republican grass roots, there is no question that Iraq lost the election. State officials and party leaders who are no specialists on foreign policy tell me the Republican Party simply cannot go into the 2008 campaign with troops still fighting in Iraq.

As a lame-duck president, Bush seems oblivious to the grass-roots sentiment that will be seconded in part by the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. Baker clearly is not doing the president’s bidding. On the contrary, Bush aides have suggested that two forthcoming government reports on Iraq (especially one by the Pentagon) are more important than Baker’s and should be given more attention.

The president’s position is difficult. He does not want to be seen as ignoring a congressional study group. But he has not yet reached the point of accepting an unconditional troop withdrawal. If he seems to differ from Baker-Hamilton recommendations, he can expect heavy scolding by the group’s members on television.

Increasingly, Republicans on Capitol Hill see no viable alternative to combat troop withdrawal. While Bush’s plight is compared to Abraham Lincoln’s after his midterm elections, there is no capture of Atlanta to guarantee an ultimate military victory. This is not that kind of war.

If not an Atlanta-style victory, could Bush stabilize the situation in Iraq by sending in more troops? Sen. John McCain, the putative front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, once again has gone against the body of party opinion by calling for more U.S. troops in Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel, second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a McCain supporter in 2000, wrote in The Washington Post Nov. 26: "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq."

Bush agrees with that, but not with Hagel’s call for a phased troop withdrawal likely to be included in a Baker-Hamilton group recommendation. Hagel sees the report as a last chance to avert "impending disaster in Iraq." While its release is anticipated at the White House as no less annoying than sitting through the Kennedy Center honors, the president faces an opportunity as well as a dilemma.