Aide Casts Doubt on Bush's Iraq Scenario

Republicans are strong; Democrats are weak. Republicans want victory and order; Democrats want defeat and chaos.

Sound familiar? It should; it's the Bush administration's winning script from the 2004 campaign. In recent waeeks, President Bush has been going back to the well to describe the Democratic war-funding bill that's rapidly heading toward a presidential veto. "I strongly believe that the Democrats' proposal would undermine our troops and threaten the safety of the American people here at home," he said Tuesday on the South Lawn of the White House.

Bush's argument is based on a doomsday scenario for Iraq, where troop withdrawals turn the country into a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and a battleground between regional powers. "Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq is not a plan to bring peace to the region or to make our people safer at home," Bush said. "It could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region. It would be an invitation to the enemy to attack America and our friends around the world."

But in private, some of Bush's most senior aides dispute that scenario. One senior administration official with extensive knowledge of the region, who didn't want to be identified discussing sensitive policy matters, tells NEWSWEEK that the chances of a regional war in Iraq are low in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. When asked if a regional war would break out, the official said: "Possibly, not probably. It's more likely that other powers would support their favorite militias, as they're doing already."

The senior official said the genocidal bloodbath that Sen. John McCain outlined recently was also unlikely, pointing to the militias' ability to secure their own neighborhoods after the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra in early 2006. (The official's main concern: the Iraqi government's failure to unify the nation and address the root cause of sectarian conflict. "Both the Sunni and Shia are too afraid of each other," the official said.)

Bush's argument that Al Qaeda will use Iraq as a safe haven to plot new 9/11-style attacks if the United States pulls out is problematic, too. Osama bin Laden already has a safe haven to plot new attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, told senators last year that the border area of Pakistan was a "physical safe haven" that Al Qaeda used as a base to attack Afghanistan. That area is also the likely home of bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, General Hayden added.

That Was Then
In January, President Bush sounded almost sympathetic to war critics. In an interview with National Public Radio, he was asked how he felt about the nonresponse from Democrats about his offer to create a bipartisan panel to advise on the war on terror.

"A lot of these folks aren't happy we're in Iraq to begin with, and I understand that," Bush said. "They don't believe we are going to succeed in Iraq, and I understand that, too. I think what some may be afraid of is, I'm trying to get them into an Iraq-type situation where they are forced to say something they don't want to say. I don't know."

That was then. In the last four months, Bush has moved from understanding the criticism to seeing it as unforgivable.

"People want our troops to come home, and so do I," he said outside the White House on Tuesday. "But no matter how frustrating the fight can be and no matter how much we wish the war was over, the security of our country depends directly on the outcome in Iraq. The price of giving up there would be paid in American lives for years to come. It would be an unforgivable mistake for leaders in Washington to allow politics and impatience to stand in the way of protecting the American people."

Why the change?

Republicans and Democrats feel there is good PR to gain by standing up to each other. The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, dismissed Vice President Dick Cheney as an attack dog with a 9 percent approval rating. (Cheney's actual approval rating: 34 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.)

The White House believes Reid is weak enough to warrant a revival of the "defeatist" attack that failed to work against Democrats in November. The administration thinks Reid is weak because of the Democratic reaction to his comments about the war being "lost." "The fact that Democrats are distancing themselves from Reid is proof that he is not a good messenger for them," says a senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while discussing political strategy.

Bush is taking a longer view on Iraq, too—one that moves beyond daily political squabbling. In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Bush admitted that his goal is to hand over Iraq in some manageable form to his successor. "I hope to leave a situation that is stable enough so that this [Iraqi] government can move forward with reconciliation, and the security situation is such that we can have far fewer troops there," he said.

Bush used to say that he didn't want to kick problems down the road. Now it's clear that he wants to leave the biggest challenge of his presidency—how and when to withdraw troops from Iraq—to the 44th president.