Thursday, January 11

Bush’s Strategy for Iraq


WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 — By stepping up the American 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 Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq.

In so doing, Mr. 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 — in the eyes of admirers, resolute and principled; in the eyes of critics, bull-headed, even delusional, about the prospects for success in Iraq. 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.

Mr. Bush long ago staked 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 also 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...

In the meantime, some Republicans are already jumping ship. Moderates like Senators Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins of Maine, both up for re-election in 2008, oppose sending more troops to Baghdad, and on Wednesday, a conservative, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, joined them.

After Democrats swept the November midterm elections, people both inside and outside the administration expected the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to provide Mr. Bush with a face-saving exit from the war. Mr. Bush made favorable reference to the study group on Wednesday night, noting that he had accepted some of its 79 recommendations.

But he rejected its central notion, that the United States should set a timetable for scaling back combat operations and mount a new diplomatic offensive to engage Iran and Syria. Mr. Bush concluded that those recommendations were not a recipe for victory, but rather, as he said after a meeting with Mr. Maliki in November, a recipe for “a graceful exit,” a path he did not want to pursue. At their meeting, Mr. Maliki presented Mr. Bush with a plan calling for Iraqi troops to assume primary responsibility for security in Baghdad, shifting American troops to the periphery of the capital. Instead, Mr. Bush concluded that the United States would have to take a central role, because the Iraqis were not capable of quelling the sectarian violence on their own.

In a sense, it is a predictable path for Mr. Bush. This, after all, is the same president who lost the popular vote in 2000, was installed in the White House by a 5-to-4 vote of the Supreme Court and 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 “earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

But no American president has been 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, Mr. Bush and those Republicans who support him know that the new policy will be a tough sell.