Bush Open to Change in Tactics

Times Staff Writers

President Bush opened the door to possible changes in his approach to the Iraq war, declaring Wednesday that “we’ll change tactics when we need to change tactics,” amid pressure from Republicans about the unrelenting violence and the shortcomings of the government in Baghdad.

Bush said at a White House news conference that the description of his policy as a stay-the-course stance was only “about a quarter right.”

“My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working -- change,” he said.

Bush did not specify what changes he would be willing to consider, and he said he remained committed to involvement in Iraq until the country was stable and democratic. And he continued to characterize opposing views as “cut-and-run.”

Yet the comments were seen as a signal of a partial openness to a new direction in Iraq, at a time when allies and adversaries have been demanding one.


A congressionally chartered study group co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a longtime Bush family ally, signaled this week that it was prepared to recommend changes. Last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), a reliable White House ally, said that a shift will be needed in coming months if violence continues and the 4-month-old Iraqi government does not assert control.

Even the administration’s ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said that the new government has only a few months to prove that its approach to the country’s problems is workable.

Some political analysts said Bush’s comments were tailored for the upcoming midterm elections. The president wants to avoid appearing too tied to an inflexible course, they said, and also wants to give cover to vulnerable Republican candidates who are trying to distance themselves from the policy.

Yet they said the language might also hint that changes will come after the elections, as some in Washington have been predicting.

“He’s trying to avoid being stuck with ‘stay the course,’ but at the same time opening the door a little bit for the inevitable pressure that’s going to come, including from Republicans, for a reevaluation of the strategy,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now with the moderate Progressive Policy Institute. “He was clearly walking a rhetorical tightrope between his view that he has to stay the course and the political reality, which is demanding some reassessment.”

Bush said he looked forward to the upcoming recommendations from Baker and his co-chairman, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, (D-Ind.), who once chaired the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bush also said he “completely” agreed with Warner’s comment that “if the plan is not now working, America needs to adjust.”

“For those folks saying, you know, ‘Make sure there’s flexibility,’ I couldn’t agree more with you,” Bush said.

Bush said he is open to suggestions for change from Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

At the same time, Bush asserted that the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was making progress in improving security, brokering political compromises among the country’s ethnic and religious groups and strengthening the central government.

Speaking about internal strategy on condition of anonymity, one White House official said: “Are there things the administration is not trying? If an independent group like the Baker panel can come up with some good ideas, we’re all for it.”

There are signs that within some parts of the administration, officials are already reviewing options.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has asked several strategists to take a new look at the issue. These include Army Col. H.R. McMaster and Army Col. Pete Mansoor, who is director of the Army-Marine counterinsurgency school at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., according to a person close to the group who was not authorized to speak for it.

Senior State Department officials deny that there are plans in the works for a sudden change in direction in Iraq. But some officials have privately acknowledged their concern over the course of events, and have said officials are always weighing how they might improve their approach.

At a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Casey said the strategy in Iraq had been evolving. Casey cited his decision over the summer to scrap his plan to reduce the troop presence in Iraq and instead expand the number of American forces in Baghdad.

“We constantly review our strategy and review what’s going on, and we adapt as we need to,” he said.

“The broad strategy, where we are working to bring the levels of insurgency down as we bring Iraqi security forces up, I believe, is still a valid framework for what we’re doing there in Iraq,” Casey added.

“And we will continue to look tactically at what’s happening on the ground, and my subordinate commanders will work to deal with that,” he said.

At the same time, there were signs Wednesday that the military was at least preparing for the possibility of maintaining current troop levels for several years.

Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker said the Army had drafted plans to keep its share of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through 2010.

Schoomaker said those plans were part of prudent preparations and not a sign that things were better or worse.

“I have to have enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot,” Schoomaker said.

Baker, in comments on his committee’s work, has indicated that the group will urge a departure from what he described as the White House’s “stay the course” approach.

Baker said on ABC that the White House should enter direct talks with countries such as Iran and Syria -- a view that is counter to one of the administration’s most strongly held principles.

Warner last week said that Iraq as a policy issue was “drifting sideways.” Another Republican senator, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, endorsed that view Tuesday, citing worsening conditions in Iraq.

“There must be no question among the administration, the Congress and the Iraqi unity government that staying the course is neither an option nor a plan,” Snowe said.


Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.