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Bush: watch what he does, not what he says
San Francisco Chronicle


December 02, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It would be reasonable to conclude after watching President Bush in the Middle East this week that the administration has no plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

"This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," Bush said at a news conference Thursday in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.




Yet some experts say it would be foolhardy to assume, just because Bush said it, that the statement is true.

There is mounting evidence that the world of public Bush-speak - from his vigorous support for al-Maliki and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to his rejection of direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran - bears little relation to what goes on behind the scenes.

Senior White House officials even tangled this week with reporters who suggested that al-Maliki had snubbed Bush at a dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah. A three-way dinner had never been planned, the officials insisted - until the reporters forcefully pointed out that it had been on the president's public schedule for nearly a week.

At a time when Bush is under increasing pressure to significantly modify his Iraq strategy, it is difficult to know whether his public rigidity is a sign he is ignoring calls for change or simply putting a resolute - some would say stubborn - face on a policy about to undergo significant alterations.

"It does seem from his rhetoric, if he's true to it, that he's not going to bend. That he's going to continue down the road toward further disaster," said historian Robert Dallek, who has written biographies of wartime presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

"But with this guy, I don't know. It's so hard to know what's going on behind the scenes. We'll all know in 30 to 40 years when they open up the documentary record," Dallek said.

The pressure on Bush is reaching a crisis, as more than 2 out of 3 Americans disapprove of his handling of Iraq.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, put together by the White House and chaired by close Bush ally James Baker, reportedly will call for a significant drawdown of the 144,000 U.S. troops as well as for direct negotiations with Syria and Iran - which Bush has resisted - when it releases its report next week.

Members of Bush's own Republican Party have grown increasingly vocal about the need for a fresh approach, and many independent analysts say the Democratic victories in the congressional election last month were a clear sign of the public's demand for a new war policy.

Along with the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the circumstances in Washington prompt some to conclude that Bush is gearing up for changes far greater than he is letting on.

"I can't imagine over the months ahead ... that some troops won't come home," said retired Major Gen. Robert Scales, author of "Certain Victory: The United States Army in the Gulf War."

Bush has steadfastly rejected any discussion of a timetable for pulling out troops, saying "all that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations."

"The idea that the prime minister or the president is sitting around looking at their watch is not the way you conduct war," National Security Adviser Steve Hadley said aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

Still, there are signs the White House is taking a more critical view of the deteriorating situation than Bush has publicly allowed.

Even as he spoke admiringly about al-Maliki, a classified memo written by Hadley and leaked to the New York Times this week cast doubt on the administration's estimation of his ability to stem the violence. The memo also hints at the possibility of direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran, which the president has publicly dismissed.

Candid talk is often a casualty of war. Roosevelt spoke warmly about the Russians in public during World War II as he worked privately to contain them. Richard Nixon lied to Congress about the bombing of Cambodia. Bush's credibility has declined steadily since the weapons of mass destruction that were the basis of the Iraq war were never found, spawning a cottage industry of books about his presidency.

Scales said a drawdown of troops would not necessarily be inconsistent with Bush's rhetoric, offering a preview of what the White House might say if it takes such action.

"I don't regard him ever saying he won't withdraw troops. What he's said is he won't just (completely) withdraw from Iraq," Scales said.


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