Bush's "Way Forward" on Iraq: More of the Same

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Sheikh Abdel Sittar Baziya, head of the Abu Risha tribe and a founder of the movement the Sahawat Al Anbar, or Awakening Council, an alliance pledged to fighting al-Qaeda in Al Anbar province.

George W. Bush is not expected to lay out his "new way forward" on Iraq until he gives a speech on the crisis in the first few weeks of January. But there were pretty good indications this week of where the Bush team is going next on Iraq. The President sent three strong signals in the space of several days — and each suggested that he was not only sticking with his stay-the-course strategy, he was about to become more aggressive in prosecuting it. First, an Administration official told TIME.com Friday, there is "a good likelihood" that the President will endorse a surge of up to 30,000 troops when he gives his next-steps-on-Iraq speech early next month. There is no word yet on how many troops would be involved or how long they might be there. Nor is there any indication yet on what the mission would be, though the President said there had to be one and he talked this week a lot about the security of the Iraqi people. The surge has been backed by a handful of neoconservatives in and out of the government, along with some retired generals, most of whom have been over to the West Wing in the last 10 days to talk about it. It surely helps the surge faction that CENTCOM boss Gen. John Abizaid, who had publicly opposed the idea, announced his retirement this week. And Colin Powell would not have broken a year's silence on Iraq just to oppose the surge last Sunday unless he was pretty convinced it was gaining steam.

The President also went out of his way last week to say he was inclined to favor an expansion of "end strength" in the Army and the Marine Corps in general. That decision is about Iraq but is not about a surge: Bush had a near revolt on his hands from the service chiefs, who feel the Iraq deployment has depleted readiness, hurt morale and left the U.S. with only the thinnest reserves to fight elsewhere in the world. The Army chief of staff said in public that the Army was "broken" and the Marine Corps Commandant made similar complaints. Bush had to do something to ease that condition — and he knows there is support for such an expansion in Congress. While it would take several years to recruit, train and equip the new units, Bush's inclination here underscores how much damage the war has done to force structure. My own guess is that Bush will tout this expansion regularly in the coming weeks, not so much because it would do anything to ease conditions in Iraq in the the near term — it won't — but because it implies that he is mobilizing, once again reapplying his game face.

Which brings us to the last development of the week. Bush tried to make it clear in his press conference that whatever Americans' dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war, next year would not look much different from the one that is coming to a close. This was, said the Administration official, a deliberate warning to Americans not to expect a lot of change. "The year 2007 could bring many of the same challenges and sacrifices as 2006," he said. "This was designed to let people know we have a lot more fight left."

It was also plain to see last week that Bush's new approach on Iraq — if it can be called that — will include a diplomatic push by Secretary of State Condi Rice, aimed not at Iran and Syria, as the Baker Hamilton commission proposed, but at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How sustained an effort this is likely to be is unknowable. Nor is there any word yet on what the Bush team plans to do about the political situation inside Iraq. It appears that the new Bush military strategy is likely to look a lot like the old, only more so.