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For Exiting Iraq, Consensus Seems to Favor Brisk Stroll

By David E. Sanger
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality now appears clear: Despite the Democrats’ victory last month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid US troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are signaling that too rapid an US pullout would open the way to all-out civil war. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group has shied away from recommending explicit timelines in favor of a vaguely timed pullback. The report that the panel will deliver to President Bush next week would, at a minimum, leave a force of 70,000 or more troops in the country for a long time to come, to train the Iraqis and to insure against collapse of a desperately weak central government.

Even the Democrats, with an eye toward 2008, have dropped talk of a race for the exits, in favor of a brisk stroll. But that may be the only solace for Bush as he returns from a messy encounter with Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.

In the 23 days since the election, the debate in Washington and much of the country appears to have turned away from Bush’s oft-repeated insistence that the only viable option is to stay and fight smarter. The most talked-about alternatives now include renewed efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces to defend the government while preparing to pull US combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year. The message to Iraq’s warring parties would be clear: Washington’s commitment to making Iraq work is not open-ended.

Yet if Bush’s words are taken at face value, those are options still redolent of timetables — at best, cut-and-walk. Standing next to al-Maliki on Thursday morning in Amman, Jordan, Bush declared that Iraqis need not fear that he is looking for “some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq.”

But a graceful exit — or even an awkward one — appears to be exactly what the Iraq Study Group, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, tried to design in the compromise reached by Republicans and Democrats on the panel on Wednesday.

The question now is whether Bush can be persuaded to shift course — and whether he might now be willing to define victory less expansively.

“What the Baker group appears to have done is try to change the direction of the political momentum on Iraq,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. “They have made clear that there isn’t a scenario for a democratic Iraq, at least for a very long time. They have called into question the logic of a lengthy US presence. And once you’ve done that, what is the case for Americans dying in order to have this end slowly?”

In the days just after the Republican defeat on Nov. 7, Bush had suggested that he was open to new ideas about Iraq. “It’s necessary to have a fresh perspective,” he said in nominating Robert M. Gates to succeed the ousted Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

But more recently, the president has, if anything, seemed to harden his original position. In Hanoi, Vietnam, nearly two weeks ago, he suggested that he would regard the recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton group as no more than a voice among many.