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.”

As conditional as the commission’s withdrawal recommendation might be, its report is indeed a slap at Bush. It also undermines conservatives–such as Senator John McCain–who have proposed sending far more troops to Iraq, and the report undercuts neocons who have dismissed the idea of engaging Iran and Syria in the effort to stabilize Iraq.

The Baker-Hamilton commission has not come up with a roadmap to success. Pulling out US combat troops could be accompanied by greater chaos and conflict in Iraq–and perhaps in the region. (In a Washington Post op-ed several days ago, Saudi adviser Nawaf Obaid warned that Saudi Arabia might intervene in Iraq to protect Sunnis–even if this could lead to war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.) But Baker has rendered a harsh judgment on the son’s war. He has shifted the debate. Withdrawal–of some kind–is now the majority position.

Will Bush acknowledge this new reality? Or might he become a Captain Queeg-like character, isolated in his adherence to a discredited and failing policy of muddling through? Bush does remain the commander in chief. Until congressional Democrats become bold enough to challenge his conduct of the war by withholding funds for it (a point that most Democrats are not yet near), Bush gets to call the shots in Iraq. He and Cheney can ignore Baker’s advice. But now that the Baker report is out, Bush has a fundamental choice: to admit he has messed up and change direction or to stay the course (even though he’s no longer allowed to use that term). For whatever faults the Baker report might have, Baker deserves credit for pushing Bush the Younger–whose presidency Baker enabled by winning the Florida recount battle–to this moment of reckoning, even if it’s a moment Bush refuses to recognize.


NEW INTELL CHAIR: On Friday morning, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi named Representative Silvestre Reyes chairman of the House intelligence committee. There’s nothing objectionable about Reyes, but she missed an opportunity to make a stellar choice by picking Representative Rush Holt for the post. To learn why, see my recent column on this matter here.

DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.