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No Path in Iraq Is Risk-Free for Mission or Bush’s Presidency

For President Bush, suddenly every option in Iraq looks bad.

To simply stay the course locks him onto a trajectory that virtually guarantees steady U.S. casualties and rising violence against international and Iraqi targets.

Bolstering the force in Iraq with more American troops could increase security -- but provide ammunition to critics who accused the administration of underestimating from the outset the requirements of reconstructing the country, while compounding the strain on a U.S. military already stretched thin by commitments around the world.

Providing the United Nations a larger role in the reconstruction would generate more troops at less cost -- but give the Democrats running for Bush’s job in 2004 a huge opening to argue that the administration was wrong all along to assume it could invade and rebuild Iraq without broad international support.

For Bush, none of these options can look very attractive. The real question may be which is the least worst option. His choice will reveal much about his style of leadership.

As president, Bush has been far less flexible than he was as governor of Texas. At times in Washington, when faced with incontrovertible evidence he was barreling into a dead end, he’s been willing to shift direction; Bush displayed that instinct in dropping his initial resistance to a Department of Homeland Security.

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More often, he’s dug in his heels even when circumstances seemingly demand a change. He’s continued to push through massive tax cuts initially designed as a response to government surpluses even after the surpluses melted into record deficits. He’s displayed an equally stubborn streak in continuing to nominate aggressively ideological judges he knows are virtually certain to provoke filibusters from Senate Democrats. Far more than in Texas, Bush in Washington equates resolve with rigidity.

From that overall pattern, the easiest course for Bush in Iraq would be to stay the course, or to make only cosmetic changes. This has been his initial instinct.

Last week, top Pentagon officials continued to argue that the force in Iraq didn’t need to be increased. For his part, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell resisted any meaningful sharing of control when he went to the U.N. seeking troop commitments from other nations. Similarly, L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, urged the Iraqi Governing Council to increase its role but immediately heard angry complaints that he was demanding responsibility without offering real authority.

Standing pat in Iraq might expose Bush to the least short-term political pain, because it doesn’t require him to implicitly acknowledge any earlier miscalculation. He can continue to accentuate the positive in his public statements and hope the violence doesn’t reach a critical mass that undermines public support in America for the mission.

But staying the course may be his most dangerous long-term strategy. Polls show Americans still committed to the goal of reconstructing Iraq, but they are increasingly uneasy about the progress toward that goal. And even among those who supported the war, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), demands are growing for Bush to try to stabilize Iraq by providing more troops.

James Dobbins, director of the Center for International Security and Defense Policy at the Rand Corp., says the history of previous occupations shows that increasing the number of troops in Iraq would reduce the number of casualties. Dobbins, who served as a special envoy for Bush in Afghanistan and helped manage the reconstruction of Bosnia and Kosovo for President Clinton, says that based on those experiences he believes it will require from 300,000 to 500,000 troops to effectively secure Iraq.

If Dobbins is right that Bush needs a lot more troops to stop the bleeding in Iraq, the president has only two real options: deploying more U.S. forces or convincing other nations to send some of their own.

Significantly enlarging the American presence seems a non-starter. It would dramatically increase the cost to U.S. taxpayers at a time when many in Congress are already reeling under the $4-billion-a-month bill for the occupation. The larger problem is that, with commitments in the Balkans and tensions in North Korea, the Army simply doesn’t have enough bodies to double its deployment in Iraq. Dobbins says the only way the administration could free more troops for Iraq is to increase the overall size of the American military, an idea that Bush’s political advisors could hardly relish on the eve of the presidential race.

Which means the only plausible way to significantly bolster the force in Iraq is to reach a power-sharing agreement at the U.N. that provides cover for countries such as Russia, France, Germany, India, Pakistan and Turkey to commit troops.

This wouldn’t be easy for Bush, either. His foreign policy has been based primarily on freeing the United States from multilateral constraints; his guiding assumption has been that if America leads forcefully enough, others will follow. To cede any meaningful control to the U.N. now would allow Bush’s Democratic rivals at home, and his critics in foreign ministries abroad, to argue that his approach was misguided.

But while a turn to the U.N. might encourage such accusations in the near-term, it would defang them in the long run. If Iraq next summer is redeveloping more peacefully under the watch of an international security force, Democratic charges that they would have recruited allies earlier are unlikely to carry much sting.

“If Bush can demonstrate that by embracing an internationalization strategy he is enhancing the chances of success and minimizing the costs, he is going to be hailed as a victor,” says former Clinton national security aide Ivo Daalder, a frequent Bush critic. “And John Kerry and Ivo Daalder and all those people who have been arguing this case are going to be standing there saying, ‘He stole our issue.’ ”

Sometimes the leverage in a tug of war belongs to the side that lets go of the rope. That may be the reality facing Bush in his tug of war with allies abroad, and Democrats at home, over sharing the daunting responsibility for rebuilding Iraq.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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