Bush at a critical juncture on Iraq

He has to decide whether to send more soldiers despite reservations from his generals.

THE buck stops here. President George W. Bush made clear this week that he would live by the famous words of his illustrious predecessor Harry Truman. Truman, who had a wooden panel with this inscription on his desk in the Oval Room, lived by it, making several major decisions that were to define his presidency.

One of his most crucial was entering the Korean quagmire in 1950. He failed to win a total victory and fell out with military commander Douglas MacArthur, whom he sacked.

Truman’s worldview was shaped by the pervasive threat of communism that emerged under his watch. It instilled a dogged ideological resistance: He always wanted the last word despite growing opposition from the public and his own administration to an unpopular war.

Mr Bush finds himself in a similar situation today. Driven by the ideological zeal of the war on terror, he faces a critical decision in Iraq that has become the main battleground against Islamic extremists: How to unravel the war in the face of a challenge by his own generals.

He must decide by next month whether to send reinforcements to the country, despite strong reservations by his Joint Chiefs of Staff – the first open split between the President and his commanders since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The stakes are high. With opposition to the war growing at home and his neo-conservative supporters deserting him, Mr Bush knows this is his last chance to carve out a legacy.

Hence, the display of a somewhat feverish resolve in two high-profile events this week: An interview with the Washington Post and the traditional year-end White House news conference.

He acknowledged for the first time that the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and disclosed plans to dispatch an additional 15,000 to 30,000 troops to the war zone.

Significantly, he declined to repeat his usual formulation that he will heed his commanders on troop levels.

According to the Post, he has traditionally paid public deference to the generals. But during his meeting with reporters on Wednesday, the President indicated that he would not necessarily let military leaders decide, ducking a question about whether he would overrule them.

“The opinion of my commanders is very important,” he said. “They are bright, capable, smart people whose opinion matters to me.”

Mr Bush might not have engaged in a Truman-style public firing of his top generals. But certainly, the buck stops here for the President as he imposes his vision for Iraq.

General John Abizaid, his top Middle East commander, announced his retirement this week. He had opposed the major surge of US troops in Iraq beyond the current 140,000.

Pentagon insiders indicate that others such as General George Casey might depart as well, giving the administration a chance to look at fresh military strategies.

The strategy under consideration now – and likely to be announced next month – suggests efforts at national reconciliation in Iraq before sending in more troops by April to wipe out the militias from rival camps.

To seize the initiative, the White House has already announced a series of moves, inviting Mr Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite party, and Mr Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Vice-President, to Washington.

It is part of an effort to deepen connections to a range of Iraqi political figures. Reports here indicate that Mr Bush might call for “reciprocal obligations” with Baghdad – trading troop deployments for progress on sectarian violence, just as the Baker-Hamilton report proposed.

He is making a slow U-turn in Iraq policy.

This week, he conceded that the US was losing the war in Iraq. And he is in no mood to accept defeat. “Victory in Iraq is achievable,” he said at the press conference.

Like Truman, who saw it as his duty to win the Cold War, America’s 43rd president is also being guided by ideology. This time, it is the threat of Islamic radicalism – not just to Iraq and the Middle East, but also to the US.

He explained: “Success is essential for securing the future of peace for our children. And securing the peace for future generations will require a sustained commitment from the American people and our military.

“We have an obligation to assure the military is capable of sustaining this war for the long haul and performing the many tasks that we ask of them. Failure in the Middle East, for example, or failure in Iraq or isolationism will condemn a generation of young Americans to permanent threat from overseas.”

Pentagon consultant Daniel Goure, who is vice-president of the Washington-based Lexington Institute, said that this “deep-seated ideological mindset” would continue to guide Mr Bush on Iraq.

“You can take Bush at face value,” he said. “He sees the terrorist threat as both the defining conflict of his presidency and the greatest threat facing the US in the first half of the 21 st century. Ultimately for him, victory is the defeat of extremism.”

Mr Bush sees his mission as an epic struggle, and increasingly so in the last two years of his administration as he seeks to script his legacy. What he decides will impact the rest of the world.

He clearly does not want to pass the buck to his successor.

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