The talk in Washington on Monday was all about troop reductions, yet it also brought into sharp focus President Bush's plans to end his term with a strong U.S. military presence in Iraq, and to leave tough decisions about ending the unpopular war to his successor.
The plans outlined by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would retain a large force in the country -- perhaps more than 100,000 troops -- when the time comes for Bush to move out of the White House in January 2009.
The plans also would allow Bush to live up to his pledge to the defining mission of his presidency, and perhaps to improve his chances for a decent legacy. He can say he left office pursuing a strategy that was having at least some success in suppressing violence, a claim that some historians may view sympathetically.
"Bush has found his exit strategy," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former government Mideast specialist now at the Brookings Institution. As Petraeus met with lawmakers and unveiled chart upon chart showing declining troop levels, the U.S. commander seemed to have opened a new discussion about how the United States would wind up its commitment to Iraq. Yet viewed more closely, his presentation, and that of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, were better suited to the defense of an earlier strategy: "stay the course."
Petraeus said the government might be able to consider withdrawing some troops below pre-"surge" levels under some circumstances. But Crocker's emphasis was on how long it would take Iraq to chart its new path, and on the necessity for American support into this dim and distant future.
Crocker suggested that despite American griping about the halting progress of the Iraq government, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his rivals might not be moving so slowly by historical standards. After all, it took Americans centuries to settle issues like slavery and local rights, he pointed out.
The process of Iraq's emergence "will not be quick, it will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment," Crocker said.
"There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect. . . . It will take a lot of work, and it will take time," he said.
Crocker said nothing about reducing the U.S. commitment. Indeed, four years after Bush stood under a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished," Crocker said U.S. economic aid to Iraq, which had been in decline, would be broadened with a new infrastructure "trust fund" and an "Iraqi-American Enterprise Fund" to buy stock in new and reshaped Iraqi companies.
One State Department official recalled that before the 2003 invasion, Crocker "warned that it would probably take 10 years to stabilize Iraq. And that's about what it's going to take -- 10 years."
Bush's approach also gives some support to Republican allies on Capitol Hill who have been anxious about entering the 2008 election season carrying responsibility for the war.
Now the Republicans will be able to claim that the war is winding down and the troops coming home, even if fewer than 20% are scheduled to return in the next year.
Bush was even able to oblige Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who asked for a brigade to come home before Christmas.
But while Petraeus and Crocker made the administration's general goals clear, it left uncertain their thinking on a variety of key issues.
Nothing new was said, for example, on how the administration intends to try to break apart the governmental gridlock in Baghdad, which has obstructed the administration's plan to bring about national reconciliation through agreements by the national government. Does the administration want to try to overhaul the badly balkanized government, or empower the local governments?
Also unanswered was what course the administration will take if it turns out that fewer U.S. forces are unable to maintain the current level of security when the five brigades leave by summer.
Those issues most likely will be left for the next president, whose new job is looking tougher all the time.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.
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Gen. David H. Petraeus outlined a series of moves Monday to end the U.S. buildup in Iraq:
* The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit of about 2,200, from Camp Pendleton, will leave Iraq this month and not be replaced.
* An Army brigade of about 3,500 will leave Iraq in December and not be replaced.
* About every 45 days, another brigade or Marine battalion will leave, until five Army brigades and two Marine battalions that made up the "surge" have departed.
* In March 2008, Petraeus will decide whether and when troop levels can be reduced below 130,000.
* By July 2008, U.S. troop levels will be at the pre-surge level of about 130,000.
* Eventually, beyond 2008, U.S. troops will go from leading combat operations to an "overwatch" role.
Source: Department of Defense