Sunday, December 03, 2006

So Now What, Mr. President?

Folks used to wonder why he didn't push into Baghdad. Baker doesn't hear that question much anymore.

Dec. 11, 2006 issue - George W. Bush was doing everything he doesn't usually like to do. He was traveling in foreign lands (when Bush campaigns, he likes to fly home every night to sleep in his own bed). The carefully choreographed president was hit with a sudden change in schedule. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, America's thin hope to create a stable government in Iraq, had seemingly snubbed Bush and was now standing frostily a few feet away at a press conference after a mini-summit meeting, held at a fancy hotel in Jordan because, nearly four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is still too dangerous to meet in Iraq. Maliki was reportedly sore because someone high in the Bush administration had leaked a secret memo from national-security adviser Steve Hadley to the president saying, in essence, that Maliki was well intentioned but either out of touch, weak or deceitful.

Bush hates leaks almost as much as he dislikes meeting with the journalists who now surrounded him, clamoring to know about reports that a long-awaited independent panel was about to call for a substantial troop pullout from Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker Commission after its co-chairman, former secretary of State James A. Baker, has been widely seen as a gambit by Republican moderates close to Bush's father, the 41st president, to rescue the 43rd president from his disastrous plunge into Iraq. Of all the things Bush dislikes, the idea of needing to be rescued by Daddy may well top the list.
So no wonder the president was a little out of sorts. "I know," Bush began, trying, unsuccessfully, to stifle a tone of deep exasperation, "there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

A few days later, many thousands of miles away at his ranch in Texas, Jim Baker was resting up, lying low, waiting for his moment. The leak, reported in The New York Times, that the Iraq Study Group was about to call for substantial troop pullback was wrong, Baker knew. In fact, the Iraq Study Group report, scheduled to be released this week, will set no timetables or call for any troop reductions, according to a source familiar with the report, who, like everyone involved, requested anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject. It will speak more generally of shifting U.S. troops from an active combat role to advising Iraqi forces, and suggest that the president could, not should, begin to withdraw forces in the vaguely defined future. The report will also urge more diplomatic initiatives to secure Iraq and the region.

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