WASHINGTON - Despite President George W. Bush's victory last week in his protracted battle with Congressional Democrats for unconditional funding for the Iraq war at least through September, his administration appears to have given up hope that it can maintain his "surge" strategy well into next year and even beyond.
A slew of news articles and columns by well-connected journalists and analysts over the past week has reported that the White House now believes U.S. troop levels in Iraq -- currently nearing the 165,000 "surge" target set in January -- must start coming down by early 2008 at the latest, and rather quickly after that.
The new conventional wisdom is that Bush, however grudgingly, has now accepted key recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), or, as he called it during a press conference late last week, "Plan B-H" after the ISG's co-chairs, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. The plan was released in early December.
"Yes, that same Baker-Hamilton plan now seems to be official White House policy," wrote David Ignatius in his column in the Washington Post Thursday, entitled "Time for 'Plan B-H' in Iraq?" "Administration officials insist that the president supported it all along, though you could have fooled me."
While it did not rule out a short-term surge lasting no more than a few months, the ISG's main military recommendation was to withdraw virtually all U.S. combat troops -- about half of the current deployment -- by Mar. 31, 2008 and refocus the remaining contingent on training Iraqi troops, protecting U.S. installations, and attacking suspected al Qaeda forces.
While that deadline is unlikely to be met, the New York Times reported last weekend that administration policy-makers were developing "concepts" for reducing U.S. troops strength in Iraq to 100,000 by the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign next summer.
The surge strategy, which called for the addition of roughly 30,000 troops to the some 130,000 deployed in Iraq as of the end of last December, was announced by Bush in early January and officially launched the following month under the direction of Gen. David Petraeus.
The strategy was designed use the additional troops to curb growing sectarian violence in Baghdad to arrest the country's drift into full-scale civil war. Proponents hoped it would provide the political space needed for "moderate" forces on all sides -- particularly the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni political leaders sympathetic to the insurgency -- to forge a consensus on key obstacles to national reconciliation, such as the distribution of oil revenues, holding local elections, and reversing the de-Baathification that followed Washington's 2003 invasion.
The strategy's security component appeared to succeed during the first two months of its implementation, as Shia militias in the capital sharply reduced their activities in order to avoid confrontations with U.S. forces. At the same time, however, sectarian violence around Baghdad and in other major cities around the country increased.
Worse, despite persistent pressure from Petraeus, the new U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and even Vice President Dick Cheney, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad in early May, the political component of the strategy has made little, if any, progress.
In just the past week, senior U.S. officials, including Pentagon chief Robert Gates, have suggested that specific "benchmarks" for assessing progress on national reconciliation that were included in the legislation giving Bush the war funding he requested are highly unlikely to be met by September when Petraeus is due to report on the surge's progress, and Congress will vote on new funding. Even the enactment of a new oil law, which was approved by the Maliki government in April, is now considered a "long shot" by Petraeus, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, initial gains made by the surge in improving security and reducing the death toll in Baghdad appear to be eroding at an accelerating rate, while the strategy's more aggressive deployment of U.S. troops to neighborhood outposts and other more vulnerable positions has resulted in significantly higher casualties. Some 120 U.S. soldiers were reported killed this month, making it the deadliest for U.S. troops since the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
All of these factors have contributed to the growing conviction -- even among some of Bush's most loyal Republican supporters -- that the continued deployment of U.S. troops at current levels through 2008, as has been urged, for example, by the top U.S. field commander in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, is no longer politically viable.
"Few if any Republicans want to go into the (2008) election with 150,000 American troops still under attack," wrote the Post's veteran political analyst, David Broder, in his Thursday column entitled "Endgame Ahead", which was paired with Ignatius'.
In it, he quoted the "supremely realistic Senate Republican leader," Mitch McConnell, as telling reporters this week that "the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it."
To most commentators here, as well as to the administration, the default option appears to lie with the ISG's recommendations for a relatively rapid drawdown of U.S. combat troops and the re-orientation of the military mission there toward training and, in Bush's words last week, "hav(ing) Special Forces...chase down al Qaeda."
The ISG also urged the administration to launch a "new diplomatic offensive" to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to help stabilise the country -- advice that Bush, as with the ISG's withdrawal recommendation, at first resisted but now appears to have accepted, albeit reluctantly and without conviction.
In an op-ed published Thursday in the Los Angeles Times and entitled "The Lessons of Vietnam", Henry Kissinger, a major backer of the Iraq war who has personally advised both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, came out with his strongest endorsement yet of the ISG's strategy, including the necessity of reducing, rather than expanding the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
"A strategic design," he wrote, "cannot be achieved on a fixed arbitrary deadline... But it also must not test the endurance of the American public to a point where the outcome can no longer be sustained by our political process."
"A political settlement has to be distilled from the partly conflicting, partly overlapping views of the Iraqi parties, Iraq's neighbours and other affected states, based on a conviction that the caldron of Iraq would otherwise overflow and engulf everybody," he went on.
While "the essential prerequisite is staying power in the near term, ...President Bush owes it to his successor to make as much progress toward this goal as possible; not to hand the problem over but to reduce it to more manageable proportions."
"What we need most is a rebuilding of bipartisanship in both this presidency and in the next," Kissinger argued.
Remarkably, that analysis appears to echo what is being said within the administration, according to Ignatius. "While the Democratic leadership isn't likely to join Bush in a top- down push for consensus, White House officials hope that by embracing Baker-Hamilton, they can begin to build out from a new center. The goal is a policy that has broad enough support that it could last into the next administration."
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.