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Developments in Washington could mark turning point in Iraq war
San Francisco Chronicle


December 04, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Events in Washington this week - confirmation hearings beginning Tuesday for defense secretary nominee Robert Gates and the release Wednesday of findings by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group - bear all the markings of a turning point in the Iraq war.

But like the war itself, now 3-1/2 years long, the shift is likely to prove a slow and agonizing slide toward an inevitable retreat, rather than the decisive pullout many voters thought they might get last month when they handed Democrats control of Capitol Hill.





As politically weakened as President Bush is, as open to fresh eyes as he said his nomination of Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld indicated, and as much political cover as the Iraq Study Group offers, Bush seems to be digging in.

Twice last week he declared his intention to "accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren."

After a meeting in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush dismissed the Iraq Study Group's expected recommendations for a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal with, "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever."

How long Bush can maintain that position, even as Iraqi society and his political and military leverage continue to disintegrate, remains to be seen. Bush is commander in chief and has enormous, but not unlimited, power to conduct foreign policy.

"The bottom line is that the president still holds the cards," said Charles Kupchan, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. "Even though the Democrats won the midterms, they're not yet in control of Congress, they're not yet in control of the committees, and even though I expect the discussion next week to be very testy, Democrats can do little more than scream and shout and jump up and down."

Democrats say they will continue to push for a gradual withdrawal, but they remain divided about exactly how and when to achieve one. And Democratic senators are likely to use the Gates hearing to offer their plans on how to do it.

But Congress' only hard tool is a blunt one that Democrats are not ready to wield: cutting off funds for the war.

This week, they'll grill Gates on his plans, hopeful that unlike Rumsfeld, he is not wedded to past mistakes. A CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, Gates is viewed as a member of the realist Republican school rather than the neoconservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq. He has called for engagement with Syria and Iran, an approach the Iraq Study Group is also expected to recommend even though the Bush administration long has spurned those nations.

Democrats hope Gates will tip the White House balance of power, allying with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice against Vice President Dick Cheney, who was allied with Rumsfeld.

When Democrats take office in January, they plan to hold hearings to help them decide what to do, said Rep. George Miller of California, a senior House Democrat and key ally of Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi who has strongly opposed the war.

"I think we have an obligation to have the hearings so we can ask the questions the Republicans refused to ask, the hearings they wouldn't have, and I think we can do it in a very expeditious fashion," Miller said. "Then we'll have to come to a conclusion, given the evidence that's been presented to date."

Miller said he wants a U.S. troop withdrawal to start in six months.

"Clearly there are people in our caucus who would be shorter or longer," he said. "But hopefully the hearings and the actions in both the House and the Senate will be helpful."

Miller ruled out cutting off funding for the war.

"I don't think you're at that point yet," he said. "I certainly don't think you're at that point before you have an opportunity for the Democrats who are most deeply involved in terms of their committee jurisdiction having a chance to take a look at it under their stewardship."

Ironically, the greatest pressure is expected from Republicans, who just lost control of the House and Senate and, unlike Bush, face another election in 2008.

Republicans have begun cutting their ties to Bush. Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel warned the president last week to seize the opportunity offered by the Iraq Study Group, led by Republican former Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Hagel wrote that the war is "not an American divine mission," and called any refusal by Bush to use the Baker commission to build a bipartisan exit strategy a blunder.

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