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Bush Defers to Generals, Iraq Slides Into Chaos

By Rich Lowry

Is President Bush still the nation's commander in chief? Yes, he continues to return the salute when boarding Marine One, but it's a role he sometimes seems on the verge of abdicating.

He has left the question of troop levels in Iraq to the generals on the ground. Gen. George W. Casey Jr. told Bush a few months ago that they would wait and see how Iraq looked after Ramadan, which ended in late October. Well, Iraq looked worse. Now the administration seems to want to wait to see the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group or one of its internal reviews of Iraq policy before making any new departures. In the meantime, Iraq looks still worse. As the administration waits, Iraq burns.

Bush has been at the mercy of events in Iraq. Perhaps that's forgivable. Even Abra- ham Lincoln famously confessed, ''Events have controlled me.'' What's less understandable is being controlled by other people's advice. Bush has been presiding over the Iraq War for three years, and he really has no better ideas than might bubble up from his national-security council or from an Iraq Study Group including the likes of Sandra Day O'Connor and Vernon Jordan about how to prosecute the war?

If press reports are to be believed, the grand idea of the Baker-Hamilton Group is start a regional dialogue including Iran and Syria. This recom- mendation is hopefulness disguised as hardheadedness. It seems admirably tough-minded to be willing to talk to your odious adversaries, but it is wishful thinking to believe that anything useful to American strategic interests can come of it. So long as we are in a downward slide in the Iraq War, Iran and Syria only have an incentive to keep pushing us down and out.

The administration will never find its strategic footing unless it manages to improve the security situation in Iraq, which is the linchpin to political progress there and the key to the geopolitics of the region. Talking to Syria and Iran might hold a slim hope of accomplishing something if we weren't losing a major war in their backyards.

For all the studying and reviewing, there are only two real options in Iraq: to stabilize the country enough that the democratic government survives or to manage our withdrawal and defeat. Every day that passes without us doing the former increases the momentum for the latter. A few more months of the current deterioration and Democrats will - despite their current disavowals - seek to cut off funding for the war and will pay no political price for it because Republicans will have abandoned the war, too.

Another hot bipartisan idea is to threaten the Iraqi government with our imminent departure to pressure it to perform. But the Iraqis don't need a demarche telling them we might leave, since it is obvious. The whiff of American retreat isn't improving conditions on the ground, but worsening them as everyone prepares for what will be the full-blown civil war in our absence.

The way to improve security in the near term is to increase the only force in the country that is even-handed and competent - America's. It has been obvious for a long time that Iraq needs more U.S. forces, but Bush has never ordered it, because he has been determined to defer to his generals no matter what. Unfortunately, the best generals can be wrong.

Bush simply has failed to run his war. Historian Eliot Cohen describes how, in contrast, the best American wartime president conducted himself: ''Lincoln had not merely to select his generals, but to educate, train and guide them. To this end he believed that he had to master the details of war, from the technology to the organization and movement of armies, if only to enable himself to make informed judgments about general officers.''

Bush has taken the opposite approach and - for all his swagger and protectiveness of executive prerogatives - is becoming a disturbing study in lassitude in the executive branch.

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