A Stagger, More than a Surge

After all the hype, all the leaks, and all the punditry, what more can the president say on Wednesday night that hasn't been said already?

The answer, according to senior Bush aides, is quite a lot.

Take the idea of a "surge," for instance. The much-debated escalation suggests a lot of troops moving quickly to Iraq. Yet two senior White House officials, who declined to be named discussing sensitive policy matters in advance of the speech, tell NEWSWEEK that the president's approach will be far more cautious. The White House expects all the new troops to be deployed in Iraq. But they won't go until the Iraqis have met several conditions--or benchmarks--to get the extra help they say they need.

Chief among those benchmarks is that the Iraqi government follows through on its own security plan, announced on Saturday. That means Iraqi troops need to report for duty, sweep through neighborhoods regardless of sectarian interests, and follow a clear chain of command that leads to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The White House expects that could take as long as six months, making the ramp-up of troops more of a stagger than a surge.

The administration is also giving benchmarks to the prime minister himself. Maliki needs to move forward with his own promises of reconciliation, especially when it comes sharing oil revenues between the regions, and rehabilitating former Baath Party members.

White House officials are keen to portray the new policy as a compromise between two extremes. On one side are the John McCains of the world, demanding big numbers of new troops for extended periods in Iraq. On the other side are the antidependency Democrats, demanding a phased withdrawal, or a timetable for withdrawal, to shock the Iraqis into action. (The White House dismisses the third option of rapid withdrawal as simply a form of defeat.)

On that scale, Bush's aides hope that the new position looks measured and reasonable. "Both are correct, but you have to correct both of them," says a senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while talking about internal strategy. "Because of the situation we find ourselves in, you have to address both. On the one hand you do have to make the Iraqis step up and assert themselves. But we also have a level of violence that exceeds the capacity of the government."

In a sense, the president's challenge is the same as the Iraqi prime minister's: to restore his credibility. To that end, Bush's aides say a key part of the speech will be conceding past failures, as well as the disappointments and shortcomings of the current situation in Iraq. After all, the White House is well aware that we've tried troop escalations before in Iraq, to no avail. And we've also watched the Iraqis repeatedly fall short in delivering on their promises. "The touchstone for a lot of people, as it is for the president, is 'What gives you the confidence that things will be different with the same cast of characters this time'," says the senior Bush aide. "It's a fair question."

It is indeed a fair question--and one that isn't easy to answer. The only way to show things will be different in Iraq is with results on the ground; all the rest is just talk. "If it comes across as more good after bad, the president won't support it, much less the American people and the Congress," the senior aide says. He adds that Bush will assure his audience that the president has pushed Maliki harder than ever before in hopes of turning things around.

Recent polls show it's a tough sell. The latest Gallup poll for USA Today shows that 36 percent approve of the idea of "a temporary but significant" troop increase; 61 percent oppose the idea. The White House believes those kinds of numbers will decline once the president makes his case and rallies a Republican base that has drifted away from him in recent months on the issue of Iraq.

Those are bad numbers. But all is not lost for the White House by any means--no matter what the pundits say.

Gallup has been polling for a long time on the question of what to do in Iraq. The question offers four options: add more troops, withdraw now, withdraw in 12 months and withdraw in as many years as needed.

Over the last year, the numbers on those questions have stayed remarkably stable. Only 12 percent support the idea of more troops. But that is in line with the number who support the opposite idea of immediate withdrawal (just 15 percent). Most people appear split between withdrawal over the next year (39 percent) and withdrawal whenever (31 percent). In essence, the country remains evenly divided between staying the course and a phased withdrawal.

The challenge for the White House is to suggest that this time, things will be different. But the White House is loath to suggest that if the Iraqis fail, U.S. troops will come home. Bush's aides prefer the idea of carrots, not sticks. And they still believe--as they have all along--that talking about withdrawal will simply encourage the insurgents and militias to sit and wait till the Yankees go home.

Bush will emphasize other new initiatives, including economic aid to follow the new security sweep and a fresh push to broaden Maliki's base by pulling in more moderate Sunni and Shia leaders. Still, much of the speech will sound familiar. The White House says the president will explain the consequences of defeat and withdrawal: bolder terrorists, civil war, conflict throughout the region. And he will also explain what victory will look like: far messier than the clear ending to World War II's fighting in Europe and Japan.

"It's not peace and tranquility, it's stability and a functioning Arab democracy in a very troubled part of the world," the senior aide says. "But there will still be violence and turmoil."

Violence and turmoil are hardly winning concepts for anyone who wants to have a future in politics. Then again, President Bush doesn't. Whatever the reaction to his speech, it's unlikely that any of his potential successors in 2008 will find a bumper sticker in it.