Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bush Aides Seek Alternatives to Iraq Study Group’s Proposals, Calling Them Impractical

The New York Times
Bush Aides Seek Alternatives to Iraq Study Group’s Proposals, Calling Them Impractical

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 — Administration officials say their preliminary review of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations has concluded that many of its key proposals are impractical or unrealistic, and a small group inside the National Security Council is now racing to come up with alternatives to the panel’s ideas.

In interviews over the last two days with officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and foreign diplomats, President Bush and his top aides were described as deeply reluctant to follow the core strategy advocated by the study group: to pressure Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to rein in sectarian violence faced with reduced United States military and economic support.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cautiously embraced that approach, several officials said, but others — including people in the National Security Council and the vice president’s office — argue that the risks are too high. “The worry is that the more Maliki is seen as our puppet, because he is abiding by our timelines and deadlines, the internal political dynamics will become so fragile that the whole government would collapse,” said one senior official participating in the internal review. “That would set us back a year.” A senior official said the administration was not near a “decision point” on how to go about influencing Mr. Maliki to move faster, and he said it was taking seriously some of the report’s suggestions.

But in interviews, senior administration officials, who would not be quoted by name because Mr. Bush has made no final decisions about how to deal with the Iraq panel’s recommendations, questioned the study group’s assertions that Iran had an interest in helping to stabilize the situation in Iraq, or that it made sense to start negotiations with Iran without conditions. And they took issue with the decision by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and the nine other members of the commission to make no mention of promoting democracy as an American goal in the Middle East, and to drop any suggestion that “victory” was still possible in Iraq when they presented their findings to Mr. Bush and to the public on Wednesday.

“You saw that the president used the word ‘victory’ again the next day,” said one of Mr. Bush’s aides. “Believe me, that was no accident.”

The administration’s inclination to dismiss so many of the major findings of the bipartisan group sets the stage for what could become a titanic struggle over Iraq policy. Just two months ago, administration officials were saying that they believed the findings by the panel headed by Mr. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman, would be all but written in stone — and that Mr. Bush would have little choice but to carry out most of them. But in recent weeks, the White House sought to describe the panel’s role as that of one advisory group among many.

Andrew H. Card Jr., the president’s chief of staff until last spring, said that whatever Mr. Bush did in Iraq would probably fall short of many of the commission’s recommendations, and that he was likely to continue making decisions that he believed were right even if unpopular. Referring to Mr. Bush’s secret intelligence briefings, Mr. Card said, “The president by definition knows more than any of those people who are serving on these panels.”

“The president’s obligations sometimes require him to be very lonely,” he said.

Mr. Bush has empowered the “Crouch Group,” a small group of advisers being coordinated by Jack D. Crouch II, the deputy national security adviser, to assemble alternative proposals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, the Treasury Department and staff of the National Security Council.

The administration’s strategy appears to be: Adopt parts of the recommendations that are under way already, or that are considered minor modifications of those efforts, and pick away at those that the administration believes imply retreat or folly. For example, the administration is embracing a recommendation that it put energy into reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Ms. Rice is planning a trip to the region early next year, and the administration says it plans to build on a new initiative by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Similarly, officials have described the report’s call for the creation of an “Iraq International Support Group” as a natural expansion of two regional forums that Ms. Rice has already met with several times, an economic cooperation group called the “Compact for Iraq” and the “Gulf Plus Two” group, which includes the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Jordan.

But other recommendations are being cast as overly optimistic. For example, while White House and Pentagon officials note that they are already embedding additional trainers and advisers in Iraqi units, they expressed deep skepticism that the force of 4,000 advisers could be rapidly increased to the 10,000 to 20,000 envisioned in the report. As a result, they said, they doubted it would be possible to pull back all 15 American combat brigades from Iraq’s streets and towns by the first quarter of 2008, the goal in the panel’s report.

The primary author of the military section of the report, William J. Perry, who was defense secretary under President Clinton, said in an interview on Friday that the administration’s resistance was baffling to him. “There are many ways in which the training goals can be achieved in a timely way,” he said. “If there is a will to carry out the proposed embedding program, it can be done.”

That argument appears to foreshadow the debate that will develop as Mr. Bush seeks advice at the State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere next week. Members of the study group say they expect to be defending both their individual proposals and the need for an integrated diplomatic and military package. “Given the track record these guys in the White House have, you would think they would show a little humility about taking aboard some outside ideas,” said one Republican member of the commission who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Dan Senor, a former administration spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said that in conversations with administration officials, they had dismissed many of the report’s recommendations as “not terribly realistic from an operational standpoint.”

He said former colleagues had told him they felt comforted by the recognition that there were no good options, because despite all of the intellect brought to the endeavor, the members of the panel had failed to make the leap from strategy to implementation. “It’s easy to suggest these steps in theory, but we haven’t been able to figure out the how,” Mr. Senor said. “Now, neither have these 10 wise men and woman.”

One of the continuing debates within the White House and the Pentagon is whether to temporarily “surge” the number of American forces in Baghdad, in an effort to regain control over Baghdad. But the Pentagon has said that most of the additional 30,000 forces should be Iraqis.

One foreign diplomat, who requested anonymity because he was discussing American deliberations, said one strategy being considered would include dividing the labor between American and Iraqi forces — with Americans focusing on hunting down elements of Al Qaeda, and the Iraqi forces focusing more on sectarian clashes. The Iraq Study Group report leaves open the possibility of a temporary increase in forces, and envisions a similar role for the United States in seeking out Al Qaeda.

An administration official said that such a division of labor could not be so black and white. And Vice President Dick Cheney is said to be urging caution in dealing with the Shiite and Sunni factions, concerned that the administration avoid signaling that the Shiites would be abandoned as they were at the end of the Persian Gulf war.

The report’s authors say their strategy will work only if taken largely as a whole; Mr. Baker warned against treating it like a “fruit salad,” picking the juiciest pieces. The White House, however, appears to be groping for the right fork to do exactly that.

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said that in spite of Mr. Baker’s public suggestion that the administration should follow its recommendations fully, “Members of the Baker-Hamilton commission made it clear that they don’t expect everybody to agree with each and every jot and tittle.”

“And the president as commander in chief,” Mr. Snow said, “still has the obligation to take seriously every bit of analysis and advice he gets, and to make his own decisions.”