Idea of Rapid Withdrawal From Iraq Seems to Fade
In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality now appears clear: despite the Democratsâ victory this month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff are signaling that too rapid an American 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 Mr. Bush as he returns from a messy encounter with Iraqâs prime minister, Nuri 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 Mr. Bushâs 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 while preparing to pull American combat brigades back to their bases, or back home, sometime next year. The message to Iraqâs warring parties would be clear: Washingtonâs commitment to making Iraq work is not open-ended.
Yet if Mr. Bushâs words are taken at face value, those are options still redolent of timetables â at best, cut-and-walk. Standing next to Mr. Maliki on Thursday in Amman, Jordan, Mr. Bush declared that Iraqis need not fear that he is looking for âsome kind of graceful exit out of Iraq.â But a graceful exit â or even an awkward one â appears to be just 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 Mr. Bush can be persuaded to shift course â and whether he might now be willing to define victory less expansively.