Bush cornered himself in an Oval Office

With the whole world watching, George W. Bush is looking like a man who has just figured out what most of us saw long ago — that he got himself cornered in an Oval Office.

Never mind that Geometry 101 says it can’t happen. Washington 101 says it can — and Bush now knows that it did. Deep down, he also knows why: Everybody he trusted to get it right in Iraq got it wrong. Perhaps he did, too — by failing to ask the right questions and of those he so blindly trusted.

Now, when the TV lights and microphones click on, we see that his eyes reflect not just determination, but desperation. It becomes unsettlingly obvious in those semi-unscripted moments such as last week’s joint press conference with his equally beleaguered ally, Tony Blair. While Britain’s prime minister maintained a tone of statesmanlike defense, America’s president sounded increasingly impatient, even whiny, as he repeated his tired Iraq mantra: Defeat is not an option, success is the only option.

Meanwhile, the president is doing now what he should have done four years ago. He is talking to those outsiders. Among them are some of those he once sneeringly shunned (including confidants of his father) because he knew they wouldn’t push the hard-line he wanted to hear. They wouldn’t promise a "Slam dunk!" for finding weapons of mass destruction, wouldn’t promise flowery welcomes, a postwar cakewalk paid for by Iraq’s oil revenue. In short, they wouldn’t parrot Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and George Tenet. And that meant they weren’t on The Team.

Even if the president had seriously consulted them it is doubtful that they could have saved Bush from his Team. Because this is a president whose only depth is loyalty. Which means he would have listened, but not really heard.

Now, according to some of those he has consulted, the president appears to be both listening and hearing. And he is finally even asking at least some of the right questions.

On Monday, at the White House, Bush heard from three retired four-star Army generals and two historians. The next morning, two of the generals gave Americans watching "NBC News Today" show" at least a glimpse of the varied views that exist among top military officers concerning the 79 recommendations presented by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

"There was one recommendation that gave me the willies, to be blunt," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "The notion that in a year you can pull most of the combat brigades out … and imbed 20,000 or more advisers (in Iraqi army units) all over Iraq. I don’t think that’s a solution."

But retired Gen. Wayne Downing, whose army expertise was in special operations, offered a different view: "I didn’t recommend that we keep the combat troops there. I think at some point we’re going to have to draw down. … The advisors are absolutely crucial …but it doesn’t take large numbers. These have to be quality professionals and they have top be properly trained." (It is a most dangerous mission, because in an urban setting such as Baghdad, the American advisors will be in situations where danger can always be around the next corner.)

The interview seemed destined to provide a newsworthy discussion by two respected generals on just what they told the president about the pluses and perils of troop reductions and imbedded advisors — and maybe what he had asked or even told them. Unfortunately, the new "Today" show anchor, Meredith Vieira, apparently missed the difference in the two generals’ perspectives and never followed up.

The president is right every time he asserts that in Iraq, defeat is no option and success is the only option. But he will likely remain cornered in his office of round walls until he comes to grips with this bottom-line truth: There is no option that can guarantee success in Iraq or even make it likely.

The question this president must ask — and then answer — before announcing his new plan for Iraq is this: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Iraq? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

If the question rings familiar, it is because it was asked in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, way back in 1971 — with the word "Vietnam" spoken instead of "Iraq." The speaker? A young veteran who had returned from the war with impressive medals but major concerns, a Massachusetts fellow named John Kerry.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)