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U.S.: Bush Unlikely To Ignore Iraq Panel's Recommendations

Bush (right) and al-Maliki pledged to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as they are needed (epa) WASHINGTON, December 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamil al-Maliki in Jordan on November 30, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated his policy of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq until the Iraqis are capable of taking on the country's security responsibilities.

"This business about graceful exit [of U.S. forces] just simply has no realism to it at all," Bush said in Amman. "We're going to help this government. And I'm able to say that we have a government that wants our help and is becoming more capable about taking the lead in the fight to protect their own country."

Al-Maliki followed by saying he and Bush have worked out a plan for Iraqi forces to quickly take full control of security. In an interview with U.S. ABC News television, he said that would take place in June 2007.

'Graceful Exit' In The Works?

However, if Bush and Al-Maliki have stressed their joint position, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission set up by the U.S. Congress, has gone ahead with formulating its own.

The group is made up of key figures from both Bush's Republican Party and the opposition Democratic Party and will present its recommendations to the White House and to Congress on December 6. The conclusions of the panel will not be binding on the administration.

"The Washington Post" reported on December 1 that the Iraq Study Group will recommend that nearly all U.S. forces be withdrawn by early 2008. Those remaining, it said, would be limited to training the Iraqi military.

That proposal may seem at odds with what Bush has said repeatedly about not withdrawing before Iraqi forces are ready. Yet Bush still may have to accept the suggestion, or something close to it, according to William Hartung, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, a New York-based research center.

Bipartisan Heavyweights

Hartung says the reason is the stature of some of the figures from his own political party who have taken part in the committee's work. The most notable is one of the two co-chairmen, James Baker, someone that Hartung says Bush cannot ignore.

James Baker (epa file photo)

Baker has long been a friend of Bush's family. He served the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush, as secretary of state, and he helped resolve the vote-counting problem in the state of Florida in the 2000 election that brought the younger Bush to the White House.

Baker, Hartung says, represents a powerful current in the Republican Party that is distinct from the neo-conservative wing that largely helped formulate Bush's current Iraq policy -- from the 2003 invasion to the present.

The analyst says he detects a turning within the Republican Party away from the neo-conservative view of aides like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who will soon be replaced, and toward finding balance with other views.

"There seems to be a turn toward creating a counterbalance to the neo-conservative thrust of his [George W. Bush's] administration. Between his [Baker's] importance to George W. Bush's career, his importance to the Bush family and the fact that George W. Bush seems to be more inclined to at least some of his father's circle than he was when he first came in [to the presidency], I think that gives Baker considerable weight," Hartung says. "And I think it'd be harder at this point for him [Bush] to just dismiss Baker's viewpoint."

Change In The Pentagon

Bush's course on Iraq also may change, Hartung says, because the president's new choice for secretary of defense -- another influential Republican who until recently was part of the Iraq Survey Group -- also has a more moderate political philosophy.

Soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Robert Gates served on the White House's National Security Council under Bush's father and was a member of the Iraq Study Group until Bush chose him for the Pentagon position. Unlike the neo-conservatives, Gates had no hand in formulating Bush's Iraq policy to date

Looking To 2008

But there is yet a third reason why Bush may feel he must adopt at least some of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations. And that is the recent U.S. elections.

In last month's elections, the Democrats took control of Congress in a vote seen at least in part as an indirect referendum on the president's conduct of the war. Hartung says that Bush now needs to show the public he is flexible.

Bush has "set himself up so that he doesn't have to take all the recommendations, but I can imagine him adopting some of them, partly to show flexibility, partly because I think he does need some sort of shift in course and some way to show the public here that he's not merely plowing straight ahead," Hartung says.

Besides, Hartung says, Bush can always say a withdrawal of forces by early 2008, for example, isn't inconsistent with his long-held policy -- it just came about earlier than anyone anticipated.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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