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Carl P. Leubsdorf : Pressure mounting on Bush

It’s widely believed that a Democratic victory in next month’s elections would launch renewed pressure on President Bush to change course in Iraq. But significant pressure is starting even before the balloting – and it’s coming from some key Republican allies.

Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., recently deplored the Iraqi government’s failure to curb spiraling violence.

Even more important was a clear signal from former Secretary of State James Baker, who heads a bipartisan panel assigned to find a way out of the quagmire.

Their messages were similar: The United States can’t wait forever for the Iraqi government to assume enough responsibility that troops can start to come home.

“In two or three months,” Warner said, “if this thing hasn’t come to fruition and if this level of violence is not under control and this government able to function, I think it’s a responsibility of our government, internally, to determine: Is there a change of course that we should take?

“And I wouldn’t take off the table any option at this time,” said Warner, the Armed Services Committee chairman.

Baker, asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” if he agreed, replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

He rejected the administration’s black-and-white portrayal of the choice in Iraq, noting “there are alternatives between … ‘stay the course’ and ‘cut and run.’ “

The stated administration intent was for the Iraqis to take charge of security when the number of their trained troops and police reached a sufficient level. That is now happening.

But though Bush and other officials often express their confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, their refusal to turn over more responsibility and start withdrawing troops speaks louder than their promises.

Warner disputed the administration’s optimistic words.

“You do not see them taking the levers of sovereignty and pushing them and doing what is necessary to bring about a situation in Iraq whereby the people are able to live, have sufficient food and fresh water, and have a sense of confidence in their government that they’re going forward,” he said.

Sen. Joseph. Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called Warner’s comments a possible “turning point” and told reporters that at least two other GOP senators have indicated interest in working on a bipartisan plan to bring stability to Iraq after the elections.

Finding such a solution is the principal task of Baker’s Iraq Study Group, which is co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled Congress.

Indeed, the panel, created by a congressional resolution with Bush’s approval, seems especially suited to go beyond partisan debating. It includes neither neo-conservatives who helped persuade Bush to attack Iraq nor liberals critical from the outset.

Republicans include former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and two people who, like Baker, have close ties to former President George Bush, former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former CIA Director Robert Gates, now president of Texas A&M University.

Its Democrats include former Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia and several with ties to former President Bill Clinton – attorney Vernon Jordan, former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and ex-Defense Secretary William Perry.

Baker said he hopes the panel can make recommendations by year’s end. But the real question is whether it can influence Bush to change a course that seems increasingly disastrous, both substantively and politically.

Many people believe Baker, who headed the legal team for Bush in the disputed 2000 Florida election, would not have undertaken the task without an understanding the president would accept his recommendations.

But the former secretary of state says that’s not necessarily so. It might take all of his persuasive powers – and a mighty push from the electorate on Nov. 7 – to move a president who has vowed to maintain his course – even if only his wife and his dog support it.


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