December 2, 2006

Quoted in the St Louis Dispatch

I was recently interviewed by Philip Dine of the St Louis Dispatch about the upcoming Baker study group report.

The text:
White House scrambles for exit strategy
By Philip Dine
Sunday, Nov. 19 2006

WASHINGTON — A "stay-the-course" U.S. policy in Iraq has suddenly veered toward a "change-the-course" posture, but with little certainty about what it will be changed to.

After three years of repeated insistences by President George W. Bush that he would accept nothing short of victory in Iraq and that the proper policy was in place to achieve that end, everything appears up in the air amid an intense flurry of new studies and proposals about the war.

Which of the recommendations the White House will adopt is unclear, but rising public anger over the war reflected in the congressional elections has most observers believing the administration has little choice but to shift gears.

"They're looking for a way out," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said of the administration.

The most widely anticipated recommendations are those of the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, expected early next month.

"The Baker-Hamilton commission may come up with something," said Skelton, who will be the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "My guess is (the White House) will embrace all or part of it and head for the door. They lost the election on this issue, and it's resonating in the administration."

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute who has close ties to many Pentagon officials, agrees that the White House understands it needs help. He said Bush would love to get a realistic plan for victory but would accept a graceful way out of Iraq.

"The Bush administration would very much like some sort of silver-bullet solution to the Iraq dilemma," Thompson said. "However, it will settle for any reasonable pretext that allows a reduction in the American presence."

Skelton came closer than he ever has to saying the United States already has lost the war.

"The biggest disappointment to me is we have not won the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," he said in an interview. "That's the bottom line. And the situation keeps getting worse. You say to yourself, 'How can it get worse?', and it is."

Analysts say the Baker panel's proposals are likely to include redeploying American troops to safer spots in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, setting benchmarks for Iraqi progress in working toward stability, and bringing Iran
and Syria into a regional conference to discuss Iraq's future.

"Tough position"

Meanwhile, more ideas — and pressure — will be coming from other quarters in the next few weeks.

— The new Democratic leaders of Congress are pushing for a redeployment of troops in four to six months or sooner.

— Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is doing his own study of Iraq policy.

— Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed a trip to Asia to brainstorm on Iraq.

— British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key Bush ally, now is calling for a shift in Western policy on the Middle East, including trying to bring in Iran as a partner.

— Confirmation hearings next month for Robert Gates as the new defense secretary will spark more proposals on Iraq, and the White House is conducting an internal review of Iraq policy.

What gives these initiatives significance is that a White House that once criticized anyone who questioned U.S. policy in Iraq as aiding the terrorists is now on the defensive.

After Bush and his top aides met last week with Baker's panel, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that Bush wanted to "outsource Iraq to the Baker group," but he acknowledged that because the United States was in a "tough position" in the war, ideas were welcome — and needed.

The key questions are whether the administration is open to a major shift in policy, and whether the United States has any room to maneuver at this point. Some analysts suggest that the White House's doing its own review of policy is aimed not at countering the Baker panel but rather at allowing the administration to say that if it makes changes it isn't merely following the recommendations of others.

Skelton said he intended to push for two immediate alterations in policy. The first will be redeployment of some troops out of Iraq within a month. "We have to let the Iraqis know, and let the American people know, that the Iraqis are going to have to protect themselves, and that's the only way they can save their country," he said.

Secondly, the mix of U.S. forces training Iraqis has to change, Skelton said. "You need Special Forces to do that, because that's what they do in life — they train other cultures."

"Reducing our losses"

While insisting that Bush would not change his definition of victory, Snow acknowledged that the current strategy was not working "fast enough." As a result, Snow said, "If there's a proposal to help the Iraqis defend themselves, he's open to it."

But that may be tough to find, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning for the State Department in Bush's first term.

"I'm not sure there are any good options," Haass said, adding that rather than "succeeding in Iraq," more realistic talk now is about "reducing our losses there."

What boxes the administration in, he said, is that the public wants neither "more of the same" nor a hasty retreat.

Whereas U.S. officials have long touted the goal of training more Iraqi troops to stabilize the country, that's becoming problematic as sectarian strife grows. In a sense, Haass said, training Iraqi forces builds armed groups that are "more loyal to a regional leader or religious sect than to Iraq as a country."

What might end up happening, he said, is that U.S. forces will be shifted to advisory roles and away from fighting. On the diplomatic front, it might be necessary to pull together "a forum involving all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria," Haass said; but dealing directly with Iran and Syria is an idea Bush has steadfastly rebuffed.

Retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who conducted Middle East operations for the CIA and other agencies, said Bush's hope to find "a way to win" from the Baker commission was a long shot.

Francona said he had heard that the panel was likely to recommend that Iran and Syria be brought in. He said this would prove "very hard for the president to do," because whenever Iran was mentioned in any context, Bush's immediate reaction was that it must stop its nuclear program.

Even if Bush relented on that demand, Francona said, Israel strongly opposes any overture to Iran, citing Iran's threats about destroying the Jewish state.

At congressional sessions last week, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that progress was being made and that pulling out now would lead to worse violence. But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will be
chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, strongly disagreed. He called for "a phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months."

House Democrats' defeat Thursday of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as their majority whip, may blunt the Democratic push to get out of Iraq quickly; he is the congressional Democrats' sharpest anti-war critic. | 202-298-6880