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Iraq Policy May Change, But to What End?


And there is muted optimism in some quarters that the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld and the Democrats' win in the House of Representatives could bring a turning point in the war on Iraq.

NPR's National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam looks at the limited options available.


JACKIE NORTHAM: In the final stretch of the election campaign, many candidates benefited from the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq - how the president and his people were not flexible enough, had run out of ideas, and were not listening to outside suggestions. One day after a resounding congressional loss to the Democrats, President Bush was steadfast that he still wanted victory in Iraq. But he did extend a hand and a request for any new ideas for Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In the coming days and weeks, I and members of my national security team will meet with the members of both parties to brief them on latest developments and listen to their views about the way forward.

NORTHAM: But promising new options about Iraq don't magically appear with the Democrats' win or Rumsfeld's departure, says James Dobbins, a national security expert with the Rand Corporation.

Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (Rand Corporation): It's a virtually impossible situation and it's not going to be improved quickly. I think we are, at this point, in a process of damage limitation and of looking for the least bad alternatives.

NORTHAM: Dobbins says there were critical missteps in the early stages of the war, such as not putting enough U.S. troops on the ground and disbanding Iraqi security forces.


Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says U.S. troops were never able to make up that lost ground. Boot says there's still no clear-cut answer as to whether American service personnel should stay or come home.

Mr. MAX BOOT (Council on Foreign Relations): There's not a lot of support for just bringing the troops home overnight, because everybody knows that would lead to even greater chaos in Iraq. But there's also not much support for keeping them there, because they don't seem to be doing very much good right now.

NORTHAM: And there's not much appetite in Congress for inserting more U.S. troops into Iraq to help stabilize the country, in part because the U.S. military is already stretched worryingly thin around the world.

Rick Barton, the co-director of the Post Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the answer to the conflict may lie with the Iraqi leadership.

Mr. RICK BARTON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Like almost everybody who's looking at Iraq now feels that it's going to take a political solution, that it's not going to be military. It's not going to be economic. It's going to really require the politics to straighten out.

NORTHAM: But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not widely viewed as a robust, hands-on type of leader. The Rand Corporation's Dobbins, who is also a U.S. envoy for Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan, among other countries, says there must be a broader diplomatic effort in Iraq. He says Iraq's neighbors must be involved in talks to resolve the conflict. So far, the Bush administration has refused to enter talks with Syria or Iran. Dobbins says that might possibly change, given the new political alignment in Washington.

Mr. DOBBINS: I suspect there'll be some controversy in the administration. After all, what's really at stake here is not just their Iraq policy but their broader policy towards the Middle East, which has been very polarizing.

NORTHAM: Perhaps the greatest hope for an Iraq solution is riding on recommendations to be delivered soon by the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan commission which is con-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House Committee on International Relations. The study group has been assessing the situation in Iraq and incorporating the views of dozens of experts.

Still, Max Boot doesn't hold much hope that the group will produce a silver bullet.

Mr. BOOT: Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton are very capable men, but I can't believe that they actually have some kind of secret plan that nobody else has thought of for how to extricate ourselves. And in fact, you know, many of the leaks coming out of the Baker/Hamilton commission, a lot of those are things that we're already doing now and they haven't been very successful.

NORTHAM: Despite his skepticism, Boot says the shakeup at the Pentagon and the Democrats' win in the House of Representatives may force some fresh hard thinking about what to do in Iraq.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.