Stubborn President still has the power to stand firm over Iraq
Tim Reid in Washington
Lee Hamilton could be forgiven for feeling a measure of smug satisfaction. Eight months after he saw his Iraq Study Group report – a bipartisan prescription to end the Iraq war – rejected by the White House and both parties on Capitol Hill, its recommendations are now being embraced across Washington.
But Mr Hamilton, the Democratic co-chairman of the commission, is a deeply worried man. Just as the group’s plan for a phased withdrawal of US troops receives the political consensus and respect its authors sought eight months and nearly 20,000 deaths ago, it faces failure again: this time victim of a gridlocked Congress and a President still powerful enough to run the war without constraint.
“Time is running out,” he said of the chance for a deal between Republicans and Democrats that could force Mr Bush’s hand. Speaking to The Times, Mr Hamilton added: “It’s very, very tough to turn a president around if he’s stubborn enough. The Iraq Study Group is the only bipartisan report that charts a responsible exit. But the President can hold it off through most of his term.”
The former veteran congressman who co-chaired the commission with James Baker, President Bush Senior’s Secretary of State, appeared deflated by the political stalemate in Washington on Iraq. It has come despite Mr Bush’s dismal approval ratings, a deeply unpopular war, nervous Republicans and daily calls from the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill to end the war.
Iraq: Has America lost the will to win?
Even if the war is still winnable in Iraq, it is now being lost at home. Even some Republican senators are calling for troops to be withdrawn
One of the bitter ironies for Mr Hamilton is that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the leading Democratic presidential candidates, have now embraced the ISG’s more moderate plan to end US involvement in Iraq, despite their antiwar rhetoric. It sees a gradual withdrawal of US combat brigades, but leaving at least 60,000 troops behind to train Iraqi forces and hunt al-Qaeda. Should one of them become president, neither will order an immediate withdrawal.
But the race for the White House is already so intense, and the debate on Capitol Hill so shrill, that neither Mrs Clinton nor Mr Obama backed Republican measures in the Senate this week calling on Mr Bush to begin a gradual withdrawal. The two Democrats voted against their own policy positions for fear of alienating their party’s base.
Meanwhile, despite reports of a Republican revolt over the Iraq war, Mr Bush still has enough support in the Senate to block Democratic calls for a timetabled withdrawal, as an allnight debate that ended yesterday graphically demonstrated.
In a gesture high on theatrics, Senate Democrats orchestrated the allnight session, complete with fold-up beds and pizza deliveries, to debate the war. But they could not even muster the 60 votes needed to bring their proposal for an April 2008 troop withdrawal to a vote.
Such paralysis leaves Mr Bush in a commanding position. Even if Republicans start to defect in earnest after General David Petraeus’s “surge” progress report in September, 17 Republican senators would need to cross the aisle and side with Democrats to break Mr Bush’s veto power. Such an exodus seems almost inconceivable.
The most that nervous Republicans can hope for, especially those facing reelection next year, is to be able to force Mr Bush into pledging a gradual drawdown of troops starting next year, something Mr Bush has said that he would like to see – but only if General Petraeus backs such a move.
“The President is in a very, very commanding position so long as he can maintain his veto-proof majority,” Mr Hamilton said. “He is not going to pay any attention to the Democrats. He doesn’t have to. The President still believes he can win this war. He said so last week. It is inconceivable that General Petraeus will say the surge has failed. So I think we’re going to have a military stay-the-course strategy well into next year. But the longer we continue down the present path, the less likely we can reach a consensus here. And that narrows your options on what you can do in Iraq.”
— Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq have agreed to form a political alliance in preparation for negotiations before a US withdrawal, it was reported.
Spokesmen from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Ansar al-Sunna and Iraqi Hamas — all militants involved in recent attacks on US and Iraqi troops — told a reporter that they would join four other leading insurgent groups to present a united political front.
They would not unite with al-Qaeda, who they condemned for its suicide bombings on civilian targets.