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Iraq? The Next Six Months

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It's clear that President Bush isn't buying into the major recommendations of The Iraq Study Group. Over the next six months, we're likely to see his intransigence go through three stages: Obfuscation: For a month or so, Bush will feign interest in developing a new bi-partisan plan for Iraq: "A new way forward." He'll make the political rounds: say the right words, shake the appropriate hands, and make every effort to appear earnest and concerned about Iraq. But, underneath his posturing nothing will change: no troops will come home, no meaningful diplomacy will occur, and no progress will be made stabilizing the Iraqi government. Following a familiar pattern, the President will say one thing and do another. He'll continue to be in denial about Iraq and, as a result, the civil war will get nastier and more American lives will be lost. Only 25 percent of Americans currently support Bush's handling of Iraq; by February, this number will have further declined. The President's rigidity presents Republicans with a vexing problem. Bush is wildly popular among certain segments of the GOP base. Yet, more and more red voters are beginning to see his presidency as a disaster. The defection of Republican Senators such as Chuck Hagel and Gordon Smith is only the tip of an iceberg of Republican dissatisfaction. It's illustrated by the fact that five card-carrying members of the GOP signed onto the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group report. No doubt, they thought the President would listen to reason, would change course when he received the recommendations of the ISG. But, they misjudged the ideological inflexibility of George Bush: he's determined to do it his way. Escalation: By February, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will complete his assessment of Iraq. He'll report to the President and then to Congress. It's likely that Gates will call for more troops and money to be sent to Iraq. President Bush will support this request. It will align him with hard-liners, such as Republican Senator John Mc Cain and conservative luminaries Rush Limbaugh and Richard Perle. Of course, escalation won't help the situation in Iraq, but it will buy Bush time. Nonetheless, there'll be an inherent problem in his approach. When Secretary Gates appears before the Democratically-controlled Congress to beg for more resources, he will be asked about his plan for Iraq; questioned about how long our troops will be needed. Judging from his past record, Gates will probably have a timetable in mind: a plan to attempt to improve security by adding more troops and then, if that doesn't work, a force reduction. This will create a conflict within the Administration: Gates will want to talk about a plan with benchmarks and Bush will not. It's unlikely that Congress would deny Bush/Gates funds for their new escalation initiative, but there will be conditions attached: at the least, a sense of Congress resolution that troop withdrawal should begin in the first quarter of 2008-one of the recommendations of the ISG. Meanwhile, public opinion will continue to sour on the war. By the second quarter, support for Bush's handling of the war will hit the twenty percent mark and his overall approval ratings will sink to the lows seen in the Nixon Administration, just before he was forced to resign. Confrontation: By the summer of 2007, it should be apparent to most Americans that there is no path to victory in Iraq; that a series of epic blunders by the Bush Administration caused the occupation to fail. As a result, support for the President's handling of Iraq will be less than twenty percent and his overall approval ratings will fall below Nixon's. Nonetheless, Bush will hunker down and continue to call for "victory." He'll label the majority outlook "surrender." George Bush's stubborn defense of his "victory is our only alternative" Iraqi policy will be a grave problem for America and the Middle East. It will also present a big dilemma for the Republican Party. Having just lost the mid-term elections because of Bush's unpopular war, wise heads within the GOP will see disaster looming for 2008. They'll forecast more losses in the House and Senate and the probable loss of the presidency-particularly since their leading candidate is John McCain, the chief advocate of the "victory is the only alternative" plan for Iraq. Republican wise men will begin to talk to the White House about the long-term impact of the failed occupation. Nonetheless, Bush won't budge. By the fall of 2007, America will face a political crisis: a lame-duck President who has lost the confidence of the American people, and that of most of his own Party, and nonetheless insists on continuing the same disastrous course in Iraq. Democrats will have to make a difficult choice: either grit their teeth and view Bush's failure as a political opportunity or initiate bipartisan action to change our Iraqi policy-begin to de fund the occupation. Whether we like it or not, we live in interesting times.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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