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Bush's Iraq Calculus

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- The last thing the Bush White House would want, you might think, would be to make the 2008 presidential election a referendum on the unpopular war in Iraq. The 2006 congressional elections were such a referendum, and the Republicans got hammered.

But President Bush, newly confident that his troop-surge strategy is working, is taking steps that are likely to guarantee another Iraq-driven election. He favors keeping a big U.S. force in Iraq through the November elections, probably close to the pre-surge level of 130,000. That large troop presence will draw Democratic fire -- and it will make the presidential contest all the more a test between a pro-war Republican nominee and an anti-war Democrat.

Bush in effect is redoubling his bet on success in Iraq. Unless the war becomes a lot more popular between now and November, that stance could hurt Republican congressional candidates and the national party. But Bush seems almost disdainful of politics these days. "History will be the judge of an administration," he told Chris Wallace in a revealing Fox News interview broadcast last Sunday. "I frankly don't give a damn about the polls."

Some top military leaders have argued that a steady drawdown in Iraq, toward about 100,000 at year-end, would ease the pressure on the Army and allow a smoother, more sustainable transition to the next administration. But Bush isn't buying that argument. Instead, he wants a to keep a big force in part because that would open the next administration's bargaining on troop levels at a higher level -- and allow the next president to cut troops without getting down to a bare-bones level that might be dangerous. Defense Secretary Robert Gates now seems to share Bush's view, after initially leaning toward a reduction by year-end to 100,000.

Reading the tea leaves at the White House these days, you get the sense that Bush's biggest concern is that the next president not unravel the gains he has made in Iraq. That explains his comfort with Sen. John McCain as the Republican nominee -- perhaps the one politician who is even more hard-nosed about Iraq than Bush.

Bush seems more comfortable with Sen. Hillary Clinton as a successor than Sen. Barack Obama, judging by his comments in the Fox News Interview. He told Wallace that he had predicted a Clinton victory months ago "because I knew that she understands the klieg lights and understands the pressures." He also defended Bill Clinton, saying that he understands why the former president "wants to campaign hard for his wife." He seems confident that Clinton won't abruptly withdraw from Iraq, regardless of her campaign rhetoric.

As for Obama, Bush was almost disdainful. "I certainly don't know what he believes in," Bush told Fox. He criticized Obama's statements last year that he would be ready to attack al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan unilaterally, if necessary, and that he was prepared to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Bush's desire for continuity is evident, finally, is his plans to brief the Democratic and Republican nominees on Iraq and other national security issues once the primaries are over. He hopes to draw both sides into the discussion about how to leave behind a stable Iraq. But in an election year where Iraq is once again the polarizing issue, the Democrats would probably scorn such a conversation as a kiss of death.


A death threat arrived last week in the e-mail of James Njoroge Wachai, a Kenyan journalist who has written about the tribal conflict there for PostGlobal, a Web discussion that I host with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. The authors of the threatening note claimed they were part of "gang of odm," meaning that they were supporters of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) that is challenging President Mwai Kibaki.

"You are writing bad articles about ODM in American newspapers," the note said. "We are watching you and you are a marked man. ... You will die like a cow."

Wachai exemplifies the kind of open global discussion we sought when we created PostGlobal two years ago. His first post for us, "Don't Balkanize Kenya," denounced politicians in his country who were exploiting tribal divisions to settle political scores. A second post, "Peacemakers Unfit for Peace," chided African leaders who were offering Kenya advice while ignoring human-rights abuses in their own backyards. He just proposed a new piece querying why the State Department is so wary of using the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to describe the slaughter in Kenya.

Good journalism is about people writing the truth as they see it. James Wachai is our colleague in that effort. When someone threatens him, they threaten our common endeavor.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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