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Bush's real plan for dealing with Iraq

Amid the debris of the Republicans' loss of Congress and the secondary political explosion of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, there is other, perhaps even bigger news.

Not to understate the obvious: As President Bush put it in his Texas vernacular, the Democrats put a "thumpin'" on the GOP in Tuesday's midterm elections.

But reporters quizzing the president on Wednesday about the election results and about Rumsfeld - Had Bush been untruthful when he said recently that Rumsfeld was going to stay? - seemed to be missing the broader, deeper point at which the president was hinting.

It's an open secret among political in-the-knows that those closest to former President George H.W. Bush - and perhaps the elder Bush himself - are getting more and more disturbed about Iraq. They weren't for going there in the first place. Now their urgency has intensified. They believe "staying the course" is a course of destruction for the current President Bush, his Republican Party and the nation. These behind-the-scenes actors can no longer contain their instincts to protect all three.

Recent media reports have brought to light fresh concerns about the White House and Iraq by James Baker, the elder Bush's top confidante. Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton are spearheading a study group tasked with finding realistic, expedited strategies for getting out of Iraq.

It's painfully clear that whatever recommendations they conjure will be warmly received at the White House. President Bush several times referenced the group's work at his post-election press conference.

Another telling appointment is that of Bob Gates as the new Secretary of Defense. He's known in Washington circles as a pragmatist who's unlikely to be blinded by the idea that current strategy in Iraq is unalterable.

Gates is president of Texas A&M University, where George H. W. Bush's library is located. Like the former president, Gates once headed up the CIA. So all the evidence points to a "higher power" that has now stuck its substantial nose into the affairs of the U.S. Departments of State and Defense. Look for it to provide not only guidance, but political cover for what's going to be more than just a tactical adjustment to the U.S. approach in Iraq.

This won't mean abandoning the region. It can't. The chaos that would follow in Iraq and in the Middle East would raise a stench that would eventually drift across the ocean and find us. Terrorists would launch new and improved destructive capabilities if left in possession of the desert field.

What it will likely mean is a redrawing of strategy to concentrate on forcing the reluctant Iraqi government to govern, and on curtailing our involvement enough to signal Iraqis and Americans that our presence there isn't open-ended.

Did President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and others have blinders on when shown the public opinion polls that indicated the Republicans were about to get skunked in the elections? Who knows?

What can be known is the certainty that both President Bushes - 41 and 43 - gained before the election that something with American foreign policy had to give, and soon.

What "gave" was the roof on the Republican House and possibly the Senate, as well as the one over Don Rumsfeld's head.

What might have been gained is the critical insight that America can leave Iraq sooner rather than later, and without leaving it completely naked to face an enemy clothed by Iran.

Now the question looms: If exiting Iraq is possible now, wasn't it also possible months ago, when the GOP's political grave hadn't yet been dug?

As crucial as that question is, it's only a rhetorical one now. More to the point, it's now plain that the elders of the Bush dynasty have stuck their boots in the muck created by the current president's commitment in Iraq. They want to end George W. Bush's Vietnam, not by giving in, but by reducing America's role and, by that, soon ending American casualties.

Rumsfeld was about brawn. Gates is about brains. Considering Tuesday's elections, a little more gray matter might be in order to fix what's the matter in Iraq.

E-mail political columnist and former state Rep. Matt Towery at mtowery@insideradvantage.com.

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