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Report Argues Bush Iraq Policy Not Working, Must Shift Course

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

In 142 stark pages, the Iraq Study Group report makes an impassioned plea for bipartisan consensus on the most divisive foreign policy issue of this generation. Without President Bush, that cannot happen.

The commissioners gave a nod to Bush, adopting his language in accepting the goal of an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” But the administration’s talk of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East is absent, as is any talk of victory.

Instead, the report confronts the president with a powerful argument that his policy in Iraq is not working and that he must move toward disengagement. For Bush to embrace the study group’s blueprint would mean accepting its implicit criticism of his democracy agenda, reversing course in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and meeting Democrats more than halfway.

Assuming he is not ready to go that far, despite some recent signals of flexibility, he faces the more general question of whether he is ready to embrace the spirit of the report — not to mention the drubbing his party took in the midterm elections a month ago — and produce a new approach of his own that amounts to more than a repackaging of his current worldview.

“In a sense,” said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy who worked for both President Bill Clinton and the first President George Bush, “what you have here offers the Democrats a ready handle to show, ‘We’re prepared to be bipartisan on the issue of Iraq, because we’ll embrace the bipartisan Iraq Study Group — are you prepared to be bipartisan as well?’

The study group, for instance, calls for direct engagement with Iran and Syria; so far, Bush has refused. While Bush has steadfastly resisted a timetable for withdrawal, the report says all combat brigades “not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq” — note the careful use of the conditional — by the first quarter of 2008.

The report in effect calls on Democrats, at least those who have been pushing for a rapid withdrawal of troops, to show patience, warning that a fast pullout would lead to “a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization and a threat to the global economy” — in effect, pushing Iraq into total anarchy.

But the real target of the Iraq Study Group is Bush. The president has already sought to play down the role the report will have in shaping his thinking. The administration has several reviews of its own under way, and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, began saying as early as October that the White House was “not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq.”

So while Bush called the report “an opportunity to come together and work together” after receiving it on Wednesday, it was no surprise on Capitol Hill that many Democrats were quicker to embrace it than Republicans. Members of the president’s party seemed to be adopting a kind of wait-and-see posture, praising the report for its seriousness and depth as they searched for clues about what Bush would do.