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Bush is in a No-Win Situation in Iraq

By Carl Leubsdorf

Climaxing a weeks-long public relations campaign to sell progress in Iraq, President Bush used his secret Labor Day visit to the battlefield Monday to hint that he, too, might favor bringing some troops home by next year.

He wasn't very precise, saying it depended on a continued increase in security. But military planners have already made clear that, at a minimum, the strain on U.S. troop levels will leave the administration little choice next spring but to start withdrawing the 30,000 extra troops it sent to Iraq this year.

Even before the president's trip, it had become increasingly evident that this month's vaunted showdown over Gen. David Petraeus' report on the military "surge" almost certainly would end with Mr. Bush fending off efforts by mainly Democratic war critics to force him to speed the U.S. troop withdrawal that a majority of Americans say they want.

But the irony is that the more Mr. Bush succeeds politically now, the more he and his party may suffer in the election campaign next year, unless the short-term military progress of recent months produces far more long-term political progress than has occurred so far. The reason: His political successes ensure most troops now in Iraq will remain during next year's campaign - and polls show the public doesn't want that.

The political danger to Mr. Bush and his party was underscored in a recent CNN poll. It showed that, despite some public acceptance of military progress, nearly three of every four Americans polled said that a positive report by Gen. Petraeus would have no effect on their view of the war.

By contrast, any congressional success in forcing a pullout might lead to the dire consequences forecast by the administration and enable the GOP to deflect some blame to the Democratic Congress. It's no coincidence that top Democratic presidential candidates say they view the U.S. withdrawal as a long, complex process.

Most GOP lawmakers and rank-and-file Republicans still back Mr. Bush on Iraq. But a handful have parted company either because of fears over their political futures or because, like retiring Sen. John Warner of Virginia, they think only the start of withdrawals can sufficiently pressure the Iraqis to end their squabbling.

It remains doubtful whether Democrats can attract enough Republicans to join in backing a date to start withdrawing troops or even a more modest proposal such as the one by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia to limit troop commitments by increasing requirements for home leave. And even if Senate Democrats could get the 60 votes to bring one of these proposals to a vote, they almost surely can't get the 67 needed to override a Bush veto.

The Democrats also face internal problems, including continued pressure from their left wing for failing to end the war fast enough. On the other side, some party leaders have speculated the administration's steady barrage of optimistic news might give pause to some Democratic House members from conservative districts. But there are no signs yet of significant defections from the troop-pullout camp.

This also explains why Democratic leaders don't have a precise plan to force a withdrawal date or limit funds for the U.S. effort in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the administration's effort to turn glimmers of progress into a steady light at the end of the tunnel faces the reality checks of independent observers. For example, though officials claim progress on half of the 18 benchmarks Congress set, the independent Government Accountability Office this week reached a far more pessimistic conclusion. It said the Baghdad government has met only three of the 18 with partial progress on four others.

In the end, the spate of claims and counterclaims about conditions in Iraq may offset one another, creating public confusion and leaving Congress and the public in a stalemate about the war. Public attitudes, after all, have been relatively unchanged for years.

But unless Mr. Bush and his supporters can succeed in changing the prevailing majority view that favors ending the war as soon as possible, even his ability to stage upbeat events in Iraq and win periodic fights in Congress won't give Republicans a positive terrain on which to fight the 2008 campaign.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is

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