An element of unreality has infected the speculation about President Bush's decision on a new strategy for Iraq. In the weeks since the Iraq Study Group issued its report and the president said he was going to canvass a variety of other sources before making up his mind, the assumption has grown that he will declare the next steps himself.
In reality, Bush's ability to act on his own is severely limited. His hands are tied both at home and abroad. At most, he can suggest what he would like to do, but he is dependent on others actually to do it.
The overseas constraints begin in Iraq itself, where any policy depends on the cooperation and dubious capacity of the struggling government in Baghdad. That government is consumed by factional fighting and has yet to find the will to deal with its own thuggish Shiite elements or to reach any kind of accommodation with the rebellious Sunni minority.
Cleaning up the corrupt and violence-prone national police force would be the first precondition for any plan to bring order to Iraq, and that is something that only the Iraqis can do. Bush can wish it, but he cannot order it.
He is similarly constrained when it comes to improving the efficiency of Iraqi Cabinet ministries, accelerating constitutional reform or securing an equitable division of oil royalties. Exhortation is his only tool.
Here at home, the limitations on his freedom of action are at least as tight.
The new Congress that starts this week is not the same passive body that approved his decision to go to war and allowed him a free hand in managing or mismanaging the aftermath.
When the White House speculates about increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq for some indefinite period, it goes directly against the expressed policy wishes of the new Democratic majority and its most influential members. The incoming chairmen of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Sens. Carl Levin and Joe Biden, have counseled strongly against such a course, and most of the Democrats in both the House and Senate favor a gradual drawdown of American forces, not a buildup.
As commander in chief, the president can order more troops into the war zone, but such a step would undoubtedly provoke the most angry domestic debate of his term.
The larger point made by the Iraq Study Group in its unanimous bipartisan report is that no policy for Iraq that does not command broad public and congressional support has a chance of succeeding. The nation and its elected representatives, as co-chairmen James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton warned, will not sustain the costs in lives and treasure it would take to rescue a deteriorating situation in Iraq unless there is broad agreement on the course of action.
Sending thousands more American troops into harm's way, when fewer than one in five Americans support such a step, is no way to build that support.
More and more of the president's fellow Republicans are making that point to him. Particularly significant were the comments on Fox News on Sunday from Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
He expressed skepticism - but not outright opposition - to the idea of expanding the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But his main plea was for the president to take the temperature of Congress, by meeting personally with the Foreign Relations Committee and consulting seriously with its members, before settling on any policy for Iraq.
"The president needs some well-informed friends,'' Lugar said pointedly, and he warned Bush that people like himself will not be ready to defend his decision if he simply waits and declares it after private discussions of the kind he has been holding within his war Cabinet.
After an election in which war-weariness was a motivating force for the defeat of Bush's candidates, he has to face the reality that the only decision on Iraq that can possibly command sustained public support is a collective decision shared with Congress - not a personal order.
Any action he takes may still be thwarted by Iraq's own divisions. But if he does not bring Congress and both parties into the process, the policy will inevitably fail. He has to face that reality.
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