COMPROMISE HAS NEVER been President Bush's strong point, but with Congress returning this week and the ranks of his congressional allies on the Iraq war diminishing fast, now would be a good time to start talking to lawmakers about the parameters of a pullout.
The Bush administration has been suggesting that it's open to new strategies on Iraq. In May, Bush for the first time endorsed the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, which last year drew up a plan to shift U.S. troops out of combat roles and begin a withdrawal starting next spring. Another hint came Thursday, after Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico became the latest GOP lawmaker to criticize Bush's approach to the war. Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto responded that the president was already pondering a change.
"It should come as no secret to anyone that there are discussions about what is a post-surge strategy," Fratto said. "We would counsel a little bit of patience."
Patience, though, will be in short supply when Congress focuses its attention on Iraq. With a Defense Department spending bill coming up for authorization, Senate Democrats are aiming to add an amendment similar to one Bush vetoed in May, calling for a troop withdrawal starting within 120 days. Meanwhile, a bipartisan Senate bill aims to make the Iraq Study Group's findings official U.S. policy, a move Domenici endorsed Thursday.
Domenici joins Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and George V. Voinovich of Ohio on the list of prominent Republican lawmakers to recently defect from the Bush camp. At least seven Senate Republicans have called for the administration to plan for a troop withdrawal.
By counseling patience, Fratto may be signaling to restive GOP allies that they should wait until September before backing shifts in Iraq strategy. That's when a key report on the progress of the administration's 6-month-old "surge" in troop levels is due, and presumably it's when Bush will reveal his own plans for a change in direction. Yet it's hard to imagine that there will be any material improvement in conditions in Iraq in the next two months; the surge has hardly dented the sectarian chaos gripping the country.
This month could be a turning point in the Iraq war, especially if more Republicans turn against the president. The best way for Bush to prevent a rapid-fire pullout that might destabilize the entire region would be to start talking — now, not in September — about an end to the surge and a shift of U.S. troops into a support role.