Bush's Iraq stance flouts Congress, public


Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 11:40 p.m.

WASHINGTON — By stepping up the U.S. military presence in Iraq, President Bush is not only inviting an epic clash with the Democrats who run Capitol Hill. He is ignoring the results of the November elections, rejecting the central thrust of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and flouting the advice of some of his own generals, as well as Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq.

In so doing, Bush is taking a calculated gamble that, no matter how much hue and cry his new strategy may provoke, in the end the American people will give him more time to turn around the war in Iraq, and Congress will not have the political nerve to thwart him by cutting off money for the war.

The plan, outlined by the president in stark, simple tones in a 20-minute speech from the White House library, is vintage George Bush — bull-headed, even delusional about the prospects for success in Iraq in the eyes of critics; resolute and principled in the eyes of admirers. It is the latest evidence that the president is convinced that he is right and that history will vindicate him, even if that vindication comes long after he is gone from the Oval Office.

Bush long ago bet his presidency on Iraq, and to the extent he can salvage the war he can also salvage the remaining two years of his administration. So he is taking a risk, challenging not only the Democratic leadership in Congress but some members of his own party, who are openly skeptical that the new policy will work and who, unlike the president, will be running for re-election.

But there are no guarantees Bush's reading of the country and the Congress will prove correct.

"It's more than a risk, it's a riverboat gamble," said Leon E. Panetta, a Democratic member of the Iraq Study Group and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. "There's no question that under our system he's going to be able to deploy these troops without Congress being able to stop him, but he's going to face so many battles over these next few months, on funding for the war, on every decision he makes, that he's basically taking the nation into another nightmare of conflict over a war that no one sees any end to."

The White House orchestrated an elaborate rollout for the speech, including a presidential briefing for network news anchors before Bush addressed the nation. Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are scheduled to appear at a joint news conference before testifying on Capitol Hill — a show of Cabinet comity that might have been unthinkable when Donald H. Rumsfeld was still at the Pentagon. Acknowledging that any mistakes in Iraq were his own and that Americans would face "trying hours" in the months ahead, Bush took pains to say he had consulted with members of Congress. But Democrats complained the consultation was perfunctory. Standing outside the White House after meeting with the president just hours before his speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to force a vote on Bush's plan.

That vote will be nonbinding. But in the months to come Democrats could go further, tying Bush's hands by setting conditions on the use of taxpayer dollars, as Congress did during the Vietnam War and, later, in Lebanon and Central America.

Wartime clashes between presidents and the Congress are a familiar thread in U.S. history. But perhaps no president since Nixon has so boldly expanded an unpopular war. Explaining his decision to invade Cambodia in April 1970, Nixon said, "A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me, are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program."

Likewise, Bush has concluded that he must scale up U.S. involvement in order to scale it down. The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, said Tuesday that Bush hopes to "bring the public back to this war." But the president's aides are under no illusions.

"The reality is, conditions on the ground have to change," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president. In the meantime, some Republicans are already jumping ship. Moderates like Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins of Maine, both of whom are up for re-election in 2008, oppose sending more troops to Baghdad and on Wednesday, a conservative, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, joined them.

"Republicans are now in an every man for themselves mode, borderlining on survival," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. "Look at Gordon Smith: He's up this time, moderate to liberal state. He's not going to be part of this mess, and I imagine you are going to see other '08-ers following along."

After Democrats swept the November midterm elections, people both inside and outside the administration expected the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to provide Bush with a face-saving exit from the war. Bush made favorable reference to the study group in his speech Wednesday night, noting that he had accepted some of its 79 recommendations, including its call for embedding U.S. soldiers with Iraqi units.

But he rejected its central idea, that the United States should set a timetable for scaling back combat operations and mount a new diplomatic offensive to engage Iran and Syria. Bush concluded those recommendations were not a recipe for victory, but rather, as he said in after a summit with al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, in November, a recipe for "a graceful exit," a path he did not want to pursue.

In Amman, al-Maliki presented Bush with a plan calling for Iraqi troops to assume primary responsibility for security in Baghdad, shifting U.S. troops to the periphery of the capital. Instead, Bush concluded the United States would have to take a central role, because the Iraqis are not capable of quelling the sectarian violence on their own.

In a sense, it is a predictable path for Bush. This, after all, is the same president who lost the popular vote in 2000, was installed in the White House by a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court, then governed as if he had won by a landslide. And this is the same president who, after winning re-election in 2004, famously told reporters that he had "capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."

But no American president has able to prosecute a war indefinitely without the support of the American public. With polls showing fewer than 20 percent of Americans supporting increasing troop levels in Iraq, Bush and those Republicans who support him know the new policy will be a tough sell.

"The American people have no reason in the world to think it's going to work just like the president paints it," said one of those backers, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, "but I think the American people, in their usual good sense, are going to wait around for a while and say, 'Mr. President, you've taken us down a lot of roads in Iraq, let's go down this one and see if it works.' "

The question for Bush is just how long the American people, and their elected representatives, will wait.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top