And on June 22, speaking at the Pentagon, Casey himself said he was opposed to setting a specific timetable for any reduction in U.S. troop strength in Iraq.
"I don't like it. I feel that it would limit my flexibility," he said. "I think it would give the enemy a fixed timetable, and I think it would send a terrible signal to a new government of national unity in Iraq that is trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it."
Yet within days, reports were circulating that Casey had drawn up just such a plan. Asked on June 26 about the reports, Bush said troop levels will be determined by what Casey believes he needs to help the Iraqis begin taking responsibility for their own security.
"The New York Times" reported that Casey's plan would eliminate two of the 14 combat brigades in Iraq, and cut three or four more by the end of 2007. A brigade has around 3,500 troops.
"In terms of our troop presence there [in Iraq], that decision will be made by General Casey, as well as the sovereign government of Iraq, based upon conditions on the ground," Bush said. "And one of the things that General Casey assured me of is that whatever recommendation he makes, it will be aimed toward achieving victory, and that's what we want."
Step Toward Stability
The first report of Casey's plan came on June 25, the day Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki presented a plan in Baghdad for national reconciliation. It included an outline for government policy, but didn't urge a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, as had been demanded by minority Sunni Arab political leaders.
At this stage of the war, is it acceptable for a U.S. general to lay out plans, however conditional, for withdrawal just as a new government is trying to assert its validity? Yes, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
O'Hanlon says that although U.S. troops are meant to stabilize Iraq, they're also having a destabilizing effect, because Iraqis see them as occupiers. At the same time, he says, Washington is showing its good intentions by making any withdrawal contingent on the stability of the Iraqi government.
"Despite the sincerity of our motives and the great sacrifice of our troops, we are, at the end of the day, relatively unpopular in Iraq. And we also certainly help the insurgency motivate and recruit its followers," O'Hanlon says.
"So I think it's only responsible to be thinking about how you can reduce [forces], and send messages that you would like to reduce," he adds. "On the other hand, you're also indicating a willingness to stay in place and remain resolved and committed. So it's kind of an inherent contradiction, but that's the reality of this type of mission."
Political, Election Issue
The reports of Casey's force-reduction plan followed a week of debate in Congress over the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Members of Bush's Republican Party argued nearly unanimously in favor of Bush's goal of victory.
Democrats offered various counterarguments to that. Many, however, called for a phased withdrawal similar to the plan reportedly outlined by Casey. Republicans responded that Democrats want to abandon the Iraqis.
Polls show the Republicans may lose control of Congress in the November elections. Republicans are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, including the growing unpopularity of the war among American voters.
Question Of History
Could Bush be trying to improve the chances of his fellow Republicans by directing Casey to outline a troop-reduction plan that would begin a month or so before the elections? Not necessarily, O'Hanlon says, because Bush is a second-term president and can't run for a third term.
"Second-term presidents think at least as much about their place in history as they do about congressional midterm elections," O'Hanlon says. "In one sense, historical legacy is the ultimate form of politics -- that a president who begins to sense that his time is limited in the White House wants to be thought of with some of the great leaders of this country's history. And for Mr. Bush, that requires some level of success in Iraq. There's simply no way that he could be seen in historical context as a successful president if this war winds up in failure."
At the same time, O'Hanlon says, if Bush is indeed ready to begin reducing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq for strictly military reasons, he's not unaware that the timing of that decision, and the upcoming congressional elections, would benefit his party.
Timing Is Key
Still, O'Hanlon says, Democrats can feel vindicated that what many of them are thinking is parallel with Casey's own plans. And he says Bush himself would admit that he is not interested in staying indefinitely in Iraq.
But O'Hanlon says there's another way to look at the Bush administration's consideration of reducing troop levels in Iraq: "It's reasonable to say, 'Listen, now that Iraq has a sovereign government in place, we can have a more serious conversation about a strategy for downsizing our presence.' And that's not cynical, that's timed to the reality of this new Iraqi government. Even those of us who might have preferred this kind of conversation to happen sooner -- and might have thought it would bring benefits because it would have reduced the perception of the United States as an occupying power -- we can still see that there is a legitimacy to having this conversation begin now."
O'Hanlon says he believes there have been "a lot of mistakes" in Bush's Iraq policy, but at least now the president is being open-minded about developing a troop-withdrawal strategy.
COALITION MEMBERS: In addition to the United States, 28 countries are Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) contributors as of May 31, 2006: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. Fiji is participating as part of the UN mission in Iraq. Hungary, Iceland, Slovenia, and Turkey are NATO countries supporting Iraqi stability operations but are not part of MNF-I.
NON-U.S. MILITARY PERSONNEL IN IRAQ: United Kingdom, 8,000 as of May 26, 2006; South Korea, 3,237 as of May 9, 2006; Italy, 2,900 as of April 27, 2006; Poland, 900 as of May 30, 2006; Australia, 900 as of March 28, 2006; Georgia, 900 as of March 24, 2006; Romania, 860 as of April 27, 2006; Japan, 600 as of May 30, 2006; Denmark, 530 as of May 23, 2006; All others, 1,140.
(Source: The Washington-based Brooking Institution’s Iraq Index of June 15, 2006)
RADIO FREE IRAQ: To visit the Arab-language website of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, click here.