Bush left battered and bruised

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 07/12/06):

The battle of Bush's ear began in earnest yesterday following publication of the Iraq Study Group's report. The US president's instinct is to hang tough, gambling that "a last big push" will bring victory of sorts. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done," he said last week. Amid great uncertainty, one thing is sure: George Bush does not do graceful exits.All the same, the president will have to listen up, and change his tune and tactics, as post-midterm intimations of political mortality steadily narrow his choices. Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon pit bull, has gone. So, too, has John Bolton, the ambassador who put the "UN" in unilateralist. Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, the White House eminence grise, will use separate Iraq policy reviews by the defence department and national security council to dilute or deflect the report's impact.

But the Study Group's overall conclusion - that the Iraq disaster is fatally damaging global US interests - places fierce pressure on Mr Bush to shift ground fast. With polls favouring a phased withdrawal, with congressional Democrats firmly in the driving seat, and with Mr Rumsfeld's proposed replacement, Robert Gates, warning that matters cannot go on as they are, this pressure may become irresistible.

And the White House faces a trap. If it is seen to reject the report's bipartisan advice, everything that goes wrong in Iraq from now on will be laid squarely at the Republicans' door. The 2008 presidential succession struggle may turn on what Mr Bush decides next.

It could be worse for the president - but not much. James Baker, ever a loyal Bush family retainer, has pulled punches when he could, in theory, have gone for a knockout. The report does not demand a firm or early timetable for withdrawal. That will disappoint many Americans and Iraqis who believe the Anglo-US occupation is part of the problem. Nor does it break much new ground. Many Iraq-related proposals have already been tried and have failed. Instead it tells the administration to try again - and try harder. Its predictions of catastrophe if Iraq deteriorates further are a wake-up call. "Neighbouring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al-Qaida could ... expand its base of operations. The global standing of the US could be diminished. Americans could become more polarised," it warns. Mr Bush does not have a mountain to climb. He has a whole Himalayan range.

The report places strong emphasis on intensified diplomatic, rather than military, action, including direct dialogue with Iran and Syria. Its recognition in principle that US policy in the Middle East will fail without a "renewed and sustained commitment to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts" will delight Tony Blair. This is a return to the realist policy of Mr Bush's father (run by Mr Baker). But the practical problems are daunting.

Drifting through Jerusalem and Ramallah last week, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, admitted she lacked peacemaking tools and clout. And seeking peace "on all fronts" would necessarily involve Israel, Lebanon, Syria and potentially the Arab states and Iran, in a negotiation of mindboggling sensitivity and complexity for which Mr Bush has hitherto shown neither appetite nor talent. Tehran can be expected to exact a high price for its cooperation, most likely through nuclear concessions.

The report's key proposals on handing over security responsibilities to better-trained Iraqi forces, thereby releasing US combat troops, also look optimistic, given experience to date. But for all the questions it raises and cannot answer, the report will be seen as a valuable, overdue attempt to end the chaos triggered by the 2003 invasion.

The president has roughly a fortnight to listen to his advisers, pick his way through the ruins, and choose a way forward. An increasingly lonely figure, Mr Bush must now be worrying whether executive control of US foreign and defence policy is slipping away. He will try to pull it back. More and more he resembles a modern-day Sisyphus. He has pushed his Iraq policy as far as it will go. Now the stone teeters at the top of the hill, threatening to roll back down and flatten him.