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The biggest loser from the Iraq Study Group report is President Bush; it has given him a much sharper rebuke than the White House was expecting.
It has also damaged Senator John McCain, the loudest advocate of putting many more troops into Iraq, now the single most unpopular political position in the US.
The report’s conclusions make McCain look like the nation’s maverick, not the next president.
Few among White House officials or on Capitol Hill thought that Baker, an adviser to Bush’s father, would embarrass the President by overstepping that “red line”.
That reckoning was wrong.
The report sets out to box Bush in and strip away options, putting the choice of “stay the course” with 140,000 troops out of reach.
It recommends the withdrawal of all combat troops within 15 months, but insists that this is not the same as an immediate withdrawal. That is disingenuous. Withdrawal is not a trivial exercise and in any form would take months — not least to protect the troops themselves.
The report is even more damaging to McCain than to Bush.
He has called repeatedly for the US to pour in more troops to get a grip on security. It would be hard to craft a more generally unpopular position, although parts of the military do share McCain’s view that the US should finish the job, and that to pull out now would be an insult to those killed, as well as a surrender to turmoil in the region.
McCain’s supporters have tried repeatedly to read a more politically appealing position into his words. In a television talk show just before the November 7 congressional elections, he said: “If you want to win” then you have to commit more troops.
In the Senate Armed Services Committee, a week after the elections, he berated General John Abizaid, commander of US Central Command, for suggesting that troop levels might rise in the short term — but only as a means of training Iraqis — and then fall quickly as they departed.
If McCain were able to say why he believed that more troops would control a deteriorating situation his position would be brave, if isolated, and perhaps more than outweighed by his enormous appeal on other fronts. But he has not managed to do that, despite his familiarity with military planning and repeated trips to Iraq.
The Study Group only makes it harder by saying bluntly that the troops are not available.
McCain’s position does not destroy his presidential chances. It leaves the image of stubborn eccentricity, out of step with the public mood, hanging there over him: a man who will not now be proved wrong, but whom very few believe is right.
The Report did not spare Bush, or McCain, the embarrassment of calling their ideas disastrous.
Friday, December 08, 2006