Can Bush Find "A Way Forward" for Iraq?

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Jetting into Jordan for a mini-summit on Wednesday, President George W. Bush will have dinner with King Abdullah II, then breakfast the next morning with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before holding a news conference and flying home to Washington. White House officials say there will be no big announcement after those meetings.

But Republican officials briefed by the White House tell TIME that the President will have something big to say in coming weeks. The President plans to combine the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group with findings from his Administration and advice from Capitol Hill into what is being dubbed "a way forward" for Iraq.

Administration officials had indicated they were eager to embrace the findings of the Iraq Study Group, led by Baker, the former Secretary of State, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, if they were consistent with the President's principles. Now, though, Bush seems headed toward coming with his own strategy, based on an array of recommendations. The officials would not say, and perhaps the White House has not decided, whether the President's plan will take the form of a single announcement or a series of speeches about helping Iraq make progress toward governing, sustaining and defending itself — the White House's three-part goal. Administration officials have begun saying they have no intention of "outsourcing" their Iraq policy, making it clear they will put their own stamp on any new U.S. plan rather than simply accept Baker's findings in toto. One close Administration adviser says White House officials "don't want to make appear as if they have to sign on to whatever the Baker commission comes up with — they may not agree with it in its entirety."

"They want some competing data points and information streams," the adviser said. "They don't want the Baker commission to be the only vehicle for filling the vacuum." People who have been consulted by the commission say it appears to be headed toward recommending greater U.S. engagement with Iran and Syria on the Iraq situation, and some modest increase in troops — perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 — to speed up training of Iraqi security forces. Vice President Cheney, among others in the White House, is prepared to fight the recommendation about Iran and Syria. "He's against engagement with Iran and Syria, and he's very serious about waging policy battles when he disagrees," one official said.

On Sunday evening, before departing Monday morning for the beginning of his four-day trip that will start with a stop in Estonia and then Latvia for a NATO summit, Bush received an update on his Administration's review of Iraq policy. The meeting at the White House included Vice President Cheney, who reported on his weekend trip to Saudi Arabia; National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch and N.S.C. officials who work on Iraq. The administration adviser said the meetings were scheduled partly to show that Bush is working the Iraq issue hard. "They don't want people to ask, 'why hasn't the Administration been creative? Why is it only Jim Baker is flying around the world and being engaging and being active and talking to diplomatic representatives of other governments?'" the adviser said. "They want to create some activity on the eve of the Baker commission report so that they can point to the fact that they haven't just been sitting in the Situation Room waiting for Iraq to improve on its own."

Several officials who are in touch with commission members said that with violence appearing to spiral out of control in Iraq, the group has been flummoxed about finding a solution. "There's complete bewilderment as to what to do," one official said. "They're very frustrated. They can't come up with anything. For the last couple months, they've been thrashing around, calling people, trying to find ideas." Administration officials say the Baker commission is discovering that if there were a workable answer for Iraq, the President would have already used it.