It’s crunch time for George W. Bush.
He has to decide whether or not to change his Iraq policy, as James Baker, his father’s secretary of state, weighs in with a report that applies much pressure on him. According to Friday’s edition of The Washington Post, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group chaired by Baker and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton will recommend next week that Bush withdraws nearly all US combat troops from Iraq by early 2008. Baker’s group attaches qualifiers to its call for this redeployment, noting such a drawdown should occur only if circumstances on the ground permit it. (And this pullout would be accompanied by moves aimed at enhancing US support of Iraqi military units, such as embedding US troops within Iraqi units.) But even Baker’s conditional call for disengagement is a sharp retort to Bush, who has repeatedly dismissed the notion of withdrawing troops until, as he puts it, “the mission is completed.” The commission’s report–if the leaked accounts are correct–will send a message to Bush: Iraq is not working, you must shift strategies.
The simple question is, will he? Doing so would be an admission that he has botched the job. Bush may not be willing to–or able to–concede that difficult point. But his father’s crowd–and their Democratic partners on the panel–is telling him straight-up that his Iraq project (the defining element of his presidency) is failing. Can Bush process this?
The congressional Democratic leadership has been much helped by Baker’s panel. Though the Democrats have not forged a consensus position, most have backed some version of withdrawal. The Baker report will provide them plenty of political cover. After all, can Karl Rove attack Baker and fellow commission members Edwin Meese III (Ronald Reagan’s attorney general), Sandra Day O’Connor (a former Supreme Court justice nominated by Reagan), and Alan Simpson (former Republican senator) as cut-and-rum wimps who want the terrorists to win? Talking about withdrawing US troops (and transforming the mission in Iraq from combat to support) is now perfectly respectable. Bush, Dick Cheney and administration aides have been nudged into a corner.
The Iraq Study Group “embraced everything we asked for,” gloats one Democratic Senate staffer. During the group’s deliberation, Senator Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader, and Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who will assume chairmanship of the armed services committee, met with Baker and the commissioners. Reid and Levin presented them with a memo that called for starting a phased withdrawal, initiating a regional diplomatic initiative, and appointing a special envoy. “It looks like the Baker report is an endorsement of our position,” this Senate aide says. “It’s aligned with our call for a change in direction. Baker-Hamilton will add to the momentum for change.”