|Time for 'Plan B-H' in Iraq?
By David Ignatius
May 31--PRESIDENT BUSH SAID PUBLICLY last Thursday what his top aides have been
discussing privately for weeks. He talked about a transition to "a different
configuration" in Iraq after the surge of U.S. troops is completed this
summer. When pressed on whether he was talking about a post-surge Plan B,
Bush answered: "Actually, I would call that a plan recommended by
Baker-Hamilton, so that would be a Plan B-H."
Let's make sure we've got that right: This would be the same Baker-Hamilton
plan whose authors were lampooned by the conservative New York Post in
December as "surrender monkeys"? The same Baker-Hamilton report that seemed
to be all but buried by Bush's January embrace of a surge of 30,000 U.S.
troops into Iraq?
Yes, that same Baker-Hamilton plan now seems to be official White House
policy. Administration officials insist that the president supported it all
along, though you could have fooled me. Now it's back -- six months later
than it should have been, with six extra months of political poison to
corrode its bipartisan spirit. But better late than never.
Where is Bush heading with Plan B-H? That question is causing some
head-scratching among U.S. military commanders and diplomats in Baghdad,
members of Congress and foreign governments. So let us try to read the tea
What drove the White House discussion of post-surge strategy was a sense
that the political timeline in Washington was out of sync with the military
one in Baghdad. The U.S. clock needed to be slowed down, while the one in
Iraq needed to be speeded up. The best way to synchronize clocks, officials
concluded, was a less ambitious but more sustainable policy -- one that
emphasized the training of the Iraqi army, U.S. Special Forces missions
against al-Qaeda, a diplomatic opening to Iran and a reduction in U.S.
troops. The shorthand name for this policy was Baker-Hamilton.
On the domestic political front, White House officials realized that last
week's victory in passing a war-funding bill could be short-lived. Funding
would run out again at the end of September, and there were growing signs
that Republicans would join Democrats in calling for a troop withdrawal.
Before that September vote, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.
forces in Iraq, would be making a crucial progress report. It was unlikely
that Petraeus would be able to proclaim such glowing success that
congressional criticism would disappear, and in any event officials were
wary of putting all their eggs in that basket. Political reality required a
reduction in U.S. troops during 2008, rather than an open-ended surge.
The internal debate seems to have been quite open for a White House that
sometimes appears to be operating in a bubble. Officials say it helped that
the president has a new team on Iraq -- from White House Chief of Staff Josh
Bolten to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Centcom commander Adm. William
Fallon to Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus.
The question now is whether Plan B-H can regain the bipartisan ground on
which the Iraq Study Group framed its recommendations last December.
Administration officials see little sign so far that House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi is willing to lay down the cudgel, but they didn't expect she would.
Observes one official: "Will Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Democratic leader]
Harry Reid stand next to the president and say, 'We're glad he finally saw
the light'? No."
While the Democratic leadership isn't likely to join Bush in a top-down push
for consensus, White House officials hope that by embracing Baker-Hamilton,
they can begin to build out from a new center. The goal is a policy that has
broad enough support that it could last into the next administration.
The best hope for pulling off this three-cushion shot lies, paradoxically,
in the diplomatic discussions with Iran that began Monday in Baghdad.
Sources say that during their four-hour meeting, Crocker and his Iranian
counterpart described in almost identical terms the two countries' shared
interest in the success of Iraq's Shiite-led government. Crocker insisted
that the Iranians back up those words with deeds -- by halting the shipment
of deadly projectile bombs and the training of Shiite militiamen in their
use. If Tehran takes that step, then Plan B-H may be for real.
What's needed is time: Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi,
seemed to recognize this when he told the Financial Times that although he
favored a plan for eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, "immediate withdrawal
could lead to chaos, civil war, could turn Iraq into a failed state. This is
a fact. No one is asking for immediate withdrawal of foreign forces from
Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told me last December that a
quick U.S. withdrawal would be "immoral." But do U.S. politicians agree?
We'll find out this summer.