President George W. Bush's review of Iraq policy is not yet complete but the die is cast: look for adjustments but not major policy shifts.
As Donald Rumsfeld, the driving force and chief implementer of the current Iraq strategy, departs the Pentagon, Mr. Bush and other senior aides have made it abundantly clear the key parts of the exit strategy offered last week by the Iraq Study Group are not to their liking.
The ISG's seventy-nine recommendations were never meant to be binding. But they were widely seen as offering a centrist, non-partisan pathway out of Iraq. Some even viewed them as a political lifeline that would cover Mr. Bush if he chose to abandon the policies which have brought us to the current crisis in Iraq. However, notwithstanding the media fanfare accompanying its publication and promotion, the Bush administration appears clearly set to forge its own way out of Iraq.
Even as former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the ISG, went about the task of making multiple media appearances to sell their approach, Mr. Bush spent this week engaged in his own version of doing due diligence for a policy review. He popped up at the State Department to hear a few top officials go over strategy alternatives and listen to several foreign service officers who work outside of Baghdad in so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The President listened to academics and retired generals known to have views which differed from some of those offered in the ISG's recommendations. Then it was off to the Pentagon where both Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates, gathered with the Joint Chiefs of Staff so Mr. Bush could hear their latest thinking.
All of this inside the beltway activity may have been designed by his White House image staff to show the President actively engaged with his military and foreign affairs bureaucracy but the truth is he gets their thinking any and every day he wants it, as he should.
Tellingly, Mr. Bush made it clear he would adopt no strategy changes which smacked of leaving Iraq before the job was done, before the Iraqi government could stand on its own and defend the security of the country. There will be no cutting and running, no retreats in the face of the daily carnage brought to the streets of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq by the well armed and coordinated insurgency which Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has shown an inability to beat back.
Anonymous Pentagon officials allow there could be a "surge" of U.S. troops sent in to work with Iraqi security units. But any changes coming from the Pentagon would have to wait until Gates is actually on board on Dec. 18 and can make his own recommendations. Suggestions have arisen about adding to the troop levels for both the Army and the Marines but that will not help in the short term.
Another signal that key ISG recommendations will not be accepted by the administration came from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said no one should be looking for a diplomatic softening when it comes to Iran and Syria. Rice told the Washington Post "If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway."
On the other hand, one area where administration policy does appear to coincide with the ISG seems to be in the need to keep on top of the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether confronting this situation more aggressively would have any real impact on America's ability to extricate itself from Iraq is questioned by some analysts -- but it seems clear it continues to be a priority for the administration.
Although time does matter, the White House has announced the President will put off making his own decisions until sometime in January, thus allowing the Pentagon's new boss to have some input in the ongoing policy review. While it may have looked to some that the Baker-Hamilton Commission might offer the administration a way out, their findings do not appear to be in line with what Mr. Bush wants.
That is fine and as it should be. The President is the commander-in-chief and however this adventure in Iraq is resolved, the outcome will be laid at the feet of George W. Bush. There is a lot riding on whatever course correction Mr. Bush chooses to make. Not least what may be his last chance to formulate a plan which, if it does not lead to victory, at least would not lead to something history would call defeat.