Bush Losing GOP Support on Iraq

The secretary of State was cordial, but forceful and insistent. Wait until September, Condoleezza Rice told Sen. Susan Collins of Maine over the phone last week. Wait until the commanders on the ground can report their progress. "It was a strong plea for me not to join in any calls for a change of mission in Iraq," Collins recalled to NEWSWEEK. But Collins, a Republican, was thinking of her recent trip to Iraq, where she claims that both Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and American commanders told her that a surge in troops in the end would not be the answer. On a more visceral level, she recalled visiting a Maine soldier recuperating at Walter Reed. The soldier was trying to decide whether to have his foot amputated. "There's a 5 percent chance his foot might be saved if he waits, but he could also lose his entire leg if he doesn't amputate now," said Collins. "I thought, 'Here is this 19-year-old with this crushing decision to make.' And I have a crushing decision to make, too."

Collins seemed fed up. She says she told Rice "that the fact that Iraqi politicians still appear to be going on vacation in August, while our men and women are out there dying, doesn't make me think we're going to see any more progress by September," when Gen. David Petraeus delivers his report on the war. Collins sighed. "It's just that my patience with the administration's strategy is exhausted." The senator introduced a bipartisan amendment to immediately wind down combat operations and instead have troops focus on counterterrorism, border security and training Iraqi troops. Collins believes her plan—broadly similar to others floating around Congress—will result in a "significant drawdown of our troops." Maybe. But military experts whom NEWSWEEK interviewed (among them senior officers serving in Iraq) suggest that for such a combination of missions to be done effectively, there would be little allowance for any reduction in troops. Given political realities, of course, adding troops is a nonstarter.

How do you manage the process of losing a war? Americans don't like the word "defeat"; certainly, President George W. Bush won't be caught using it. He continues to talk of victory in Iraq, to insist that anything less is unacceptable. But his circle of true believers seems to be getting ever smaller. It may be limited to Vice President Dick Cheney, maybe a military commander or two and a few diehard senators. For everyone else in a position of authority over the war effort, there seems to be a grim recognition that Iraq is a lost cause, or very nearly so. The real question is not whether America can win, but rather how to get out.

It is a dilemma without a right answer. Pull out now and abandon thousands of Iraqis to their deaths. Stay in and doom a smaller but still-significant number of American troops, while probably just postponing the day of reckoning, the seemingly inevitable bloodbath as Iraq collapses into full-scale civil war. And what, exactly, would withdrawal look like? Americans still remember the desperate images of the fall of Saigon—the iconic helicopter on the roof. Would Iraqis who cast their lot with the American "liberators" be seen clinging to tanks as they pull out of Baghdad?

This no-win reality is behind the current round of posturing on Capitol Hill. Some Democrats offer resolutions calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops within a few months—knowing that there's no real chance of the measure's passing and the president's accepting it. Some Republicans argue strongly to stay the course, while others (especially the ones up for re-election) look for a middle ground—a gradual drawdown of troops by March. There's no strong evidence that a partial withdrawal would be an effective endgame, but the president probably has, at the outside, until next spring to show that his surge plan can provide the security for Iraq's fractious politicians to mend their differences. By that time, President Bush may have no choice but to cut his troop force in Iraq for the simple reason that the U.S. Army is on the verge of breaking under the strain of a war that has lasted longer than World War II.

Politicians talk; votes are cast; Washington fiddles while Iraq slowly burns. Nothing definitive is likely to happen any time soon. But the pressure will grow on the White House to face political reality: that the American people will not support an open-ended war to save a country that seems incapable of saving itself. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 54 percent said they were not willing to give the president until spring before making troop cutbacks and 65 percent said they were not confident that the Iraq government could control the violence after a U.S. pullout.

The White House is not in panic mode, say two White House aides not authorized to speak on the record. The aides were trying to tamp down speculation after The New York Times reported serious internal divisions over what to do in Iraq. But at a Senate lunch Cheney attended last week, Collins said she detected an unusual note of urgency. "The vice president comes to our lunch frequently, but he speaks rarely," Collins tells NEWSWEEK. This time, however, Cheney spoke up to second Sen. John McCain's pitch to stay the course. "There is a real step-up of activity in the White House," says Collins. "I think they are extremely worried, and they should be. There is a steady erosion of support for their policies."

Publicly, the president was defiant. "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war," he told reporters before the House voted, largely on party lines, to require that the United States withdraw most combat troops by April 1, 2008. "I think they ought to be funding the troops." Privately, however, he was more reflective. Talking to Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon about another matter, the president got on to the subject of burying dead kids, a highly personal topic for Smith, whose 21-year-old adopted son committed suicide in 2003. Smith says he told the president that his opposition to the war was based in part on "knowing what it's like as a parent to bury a child." Smith pointedly added: "And we're doing a lot of that in this country now." Bush responded, "I understand, because I've talked to several thousand families." Smith tells NEWSWEEK: "He didn't say this, but I know that's the hardest part of his job, and I know how personally this all grieves him."

Yet Bush's personal anguish does not seem to have altered his calculations, Smith says. "His formula is, 'We'll stand down while they stand up.' I've come to believe that is a mirage," says Smith, who calls Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki a "weak reed." Smith has company: at the heart of the Republican rebellion on the Hill is disgust with Maliki and the Iraqis. Part of the idea behind pushing a troop drawdown is to force Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to settle their sectarian feuds. "My conclusion is that Iraqi political leaders won't reach honorable compromises until they have their skin in the game. Not their soldiers', but their own," says Smith. There are signs that the White House is also losing patience with Maliki & Co. The White House is seriously considering a plan to lock Maliki and the others in a room until they come up with compromises on vexing issues like sharing oil revenues, says a White House official who asked for anonymity speaking about a sensitive matter. Whether the Iraqis would go along with this scheme is another question.

To overcome a presidential veto, at least 18 Republicans will have to join with the Democrats to vote for legislation changing course on Iraq. As of now, fewer than a dozen Republicans are ready to bolt. Many eyes are on Sen. John Warner of Virginia. A genteel, preppy type who wore a kilt to his own wedding (his third), Warner is regarded as a mainstream pillar of the establishment. But Warner is also adaptable. "Watch John Warner," an aide to a Republican senator, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record, recalls being told by his boss. "He's not going to end up on the wrong side of anything." Last week Warner joined Sen. Richard Lugar, another senior statesman, to nudge the administration to prepare to head for the exits. The bill would require the administration to draw up a plan to pull out or redeploy forces by mid-October—in other words, soon after General Petraeus presents his progress report on the surge. (An interim report released last week showed some military gains but no political progress.) As Warner swept out of his Senate office last Friday, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked him if this proposal meant that he was "defecting" from the administration on Iraq. "I do not consider this a defection, I certainly do not!" Warner exclaimed.

From Iraq, General Petraeus is watching the Washington political dance with misgivings. "I can think of few commanders in history who wouldn't have wanted more troops, more time or more unity among their partners," Petraeus told military analyst Ralph Peters last week. "However, if I could only have one, at this point in Iraq it would be more time." Petraeus, who is sympathetic to the problems faced by Iraqi leaders, has often talked ruefully of Washington time versus Baghdad time. Insurgencies (like those in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia) take a long time to burn out, he has noted, and suggested that this one could go on for another decade.

The much-vaunted surge of 30,000 troops that began back in January did not actually crest until June. Only in the past month has the operational chief in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, been able to throw a pair of armed rings around Baghdad to cut off the movement of insurgents and munitions from the countryside. American forces often, it seems, play whack-a-mole—they can pacify an area, but as soon as they leave, the insurgents come back. At the same time, however, American forces are making some progress. A plan to surround and cut off Baqubah, an Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold, seemed to fizzle in June when the insurgents fled before the troops arrived. But last week American forces got a tip from a local resident that insurgents from the group were hiding in the small town of Sherween. This time, using American planes to bomb bridges and deploying Iraqi soldiers (aided by U.S. Special Forces) on the ground, the Americans were able to cut off escape and kill or capture about 40 insurgents.

Cutting the number of troops or changing their mission, as Senator Collins and other lawmakers suggest, may not be so straightforward. A senior officer with a command role in Iraq operations, who requested anonymity to maintain his relationship with Congress, scoffed at the assumptions held by lawmakers who want to draw down forces. Concentrating on counterterrorism, stopping terrorists or munitions from coming over the border and training and equipping Iraqis are missions that in total could require more, not fewer, troops. "This isn't Harry Potter," says the official. "You can't just wave a wand." Many lawmakers want to implement the suggestions of the Iraq Study Group from last December. The Baker-Hamilton report suggested embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi units. "That's a prescription for getting American soldiers killed," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

If American soldiers start dying in ever-larger numbers, political pressure will grow to pull out of Iraq altogether. Pentagon officials wary of seeming to undercut the president decline to discuss it on the record; but Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has ordered up "staff estimates"—rough cuts—of what several contingencies might entail. One sobering conclusion: withdrawal would take at least nine months and possibly as long as two years. The nine-month scenario would be "if we were told to leave quickly," and would be "under combat conditions," says a military official who also didn't want to undercut the president on the record. Translation: the U.S. military would have to fight its way out. General McCaffrey predicts a "nightmare" of ambushed convoys and a tidal wave of desperate refugees. Getting out of Iraq, it seems, would be just as horrendous as staying in.