Like it or not, Bush still controls Iraq policy

Call President Bush a lame duck, a weakened leader, a disappointed president whose party lost control of Congress — and the decider when it comes to a new approach in Iraq. After all the studies and recommendations and talk, the president will call the shots.

Members of Congress can complain and investigate, yet there is little they can do to change Iraq policy short of cutting off funds. Regardless of Bush’s diminished state, the ball is in his court. While Congress can declare war, the president, after all, is the one who moves troops.

Bush is expected to outline what he calls his new strategy for Iraq in a speech before Christmas.

In developing his policy adjustments, Bush said he would weigh recommendations from the Iraq Study Group headed by Republican James A. Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton; the Pentagon; the State Department; and his National Security Council.

"Not only does the president have the decision-making capability here, but he’s got another important thing, and that’s the bully pulpit," said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "He knows where public opinion is, and it’s against him, and he knows it’s not going to change unless the situation changes."

Washington was galvanized last week by the change-the-course recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton commission. They included a call for withdrawing most U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008, shifting the U.S. mission to one of training and advising, and soliciting Iran and Syria’s help in stabilizing Iraq.

Bush has reacted coolly. But the report probably will figure prominently in the new course he lays out. And it has a built-in advantage because it comes with a bipartisan imprimatur.

Baker, secretary of state in administration of Bush’s father, said the report was the only truly comprehensive bipartisan plan that has surfaced. "I hope we don’t treat this like a fruit salad and say, `I like this, but I don’t like that,’" Baker said at a Senate hearing.

Bush, however, may do just that.

The president seems bound to embrace some recommendations and credit the five Republicans and five Democrats behind them. Where possible, he probably will say that some changes urged by Baker and Hamilton — such as leaning more aggressively on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — only reflect what already is under way.

Bush invited congressional leaders — Democrats, who will control Congress beginning next month, and Republicans, newly in the minority — to the White House on Friday to discuss Iraq.

Afterward, presidential spokesman Tony Snow said Bush made clear he would consider all views and strive for bipartisanship. But, Snow added, "He is commander in chief and that’s something that the people in the room also realize."

Bush visits the State Department on Monday and meets later in the week with military officials involved in the administration’s Iraq review.

Bush has said, in other contexts, that while he understands that people disagree with him, "I’m the decider."

Hamilton acknowledged that the study group has little political leverage to push its 79 recommendations. "We will do what we can to put them forward. But, obviously, the policymakers have to take over from this point," he said.

For all practical purposes, that means the president, suggested Hamilton, a former 17-term Indiana congressman who was chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

Congress has been "extraordinarily timid in its exercise of its constitutional responsibilities" on the war, Hamilton said.

Members of Congress, particularly those from the out-of-power party, often fume about a president’s military initiatives, especially ones that go badly. Rarely, though, do they do much about it.

One exception came in 1973: Congress refused to provide money for bombing in Cambodia and Thailand during the Nixon administration.

Also, in 1982, Congress passed a law known as the Boland Amendment banning U.S. military assistance to anti-Marxist militants in Nicaragua.

In an AP-Ipsos poll taken last week, just 27 percent of people in the U.S. who were surveyed said they approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq, down from his previous low of 31 percent in November.

"He can still play the `I’m the decider’ role a little longer. But at some point, if the policy still fails, he becomes irrelevant — even though he’s still commander in chief," said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"Because then the presidential race for 2008 becomes about how to get the heck out of Iraq. And the Democratic Congress may cut off funding. Even though they’re not going to do it now, they may do it in a year," O’Hanlon said.


Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press