When it comes to moving slowly in Iraq, things are suddenly moving very, very quickly. While most of us were sleeping last night, the New York Times reported that James Baker's Iraq Study Group will be recommending an extraordinarily vague plan for the gradual pulling back of U.S. combat forces in Iraq. And before most of us were up this morning, George W. Bush already seemed to be rejecting the plan out of hand.
We won't see the Baker group's written proposal until next week, but the descriptions we're seeing seem like classic work by committee. The group will call for some sort of diplomacy with Syria and Iran. As for the status of U.S. troops? The committee apparently won't be saying anything specific about when a pullback should start or what the pace of it should be. Moreover, the Times says, the group's report "leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries." And even as combat troops are pulled back under the group's plan, additional U.S. forces would be sent into the field in Iraq to serve as advisors for Iraqi security forces.
This isn't a timeline for phased withdrawal, which is what at least some Democrats on the committee had advocated as the only way to get Iraqis to understand that they're going to have to stand up sooner rather than later. A source "familiar with the panel's recommendations" tells the Washington Post that the committee's recommendation "wasn't as specific as that, and it was a lot more conditional."
So what are the conditions? The source wouldn't say. How gradual is the pullback the committee has in mind? The Post's sources say it "might be possible" to reduce the U.S. troop level in Iraq by half -- to about 70,000 troops -- "in a year or two." The Times is less explicit and more cryptic: The Baker group reached a "classic Washington compromise," the paper says: "A report that sets no explicit timetable but, between the lines, appears to have one built in."
Even that would appear to be too much for Bush. The president wasn't asked specifically about the Baker group's report during his press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan this morning, but he seemed to go out of his way to dismiss its recommendations anyway. "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," Bush said. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
Bush was asked whether he had talked with Maliki about any "time limits" on the Iraqis' taking control of their own security. "As quick as possible," he said. "I've been asked about timetables ever since we got into this. All timetables mean is that it -- it is a timetable for withdrawal. You keep asking me those questions. All that does is ... set people up for unrealistic expectations."