Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Bush began a new political counteroffensive this week in response to the erosion of Republican support for the war in Iraq. His message: "I want to bring the troops home as much as you do."

Indeed, in a series of speeches this week, Bush has begun saying this is his intention and the primary rationale behind this year's troop surge -- to improve the security situation on the ground such that it will permit U.S. force withdrawals by early next year.

This was also the message the White House was privately delivering last week to a number of Republicans who have voiced their frustration about the continuing violence and mounting casualties as a result of the surge. "We want what you want," White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley has been telling rebellious lawmakers in one-on-one "hand-holding" meetings.

The political offensive was being deployed this week, after intensive debate within the White House, just as the Democrats were jump-starting their own offensive to insert new language into a defense-funding bill to end the war. Bush won the initial skirmish earlier this year against a troop-pullout bill, but the latest erosion of support for the war among his troops on Capitol Hill and the continued truck-bombing carnage in Iraq has made the next round of legislative warfare even more problematical.

Still, Bush has several things going for him that have gotten lost in the growing clamor over the war that could help the administration buy some time until Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, delivers his report on the conduct of the war in September.

Much has been made of the speeches by Republican senators Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and George Voinovich of Ohio, who vented their frustrations with the war and a growing unease that the latest surge may not work. Then what? they ask. What is Bush's Plan B?

Overlooked in their impassioned speeches is that they are not calling for a pullout, a move that would lead to a bloodbath in Iraq and, perhaps, a wider conflict in the region. Nor are they calling for setting a firm deadline when the administration would begin bringing troops home, turning over the brunt of the war to the Iraqi army. The Iraqi military, while shouldering an increasing role, isn't there yet, in training or leadership.

What these and other Republicans want is a clearer statement from the president that he does not envision an unending war led by U.S. troops and that he intends to begin downsizing our combat role there in 2008 at the latest, as the Iraqi military takes over.

That is what Bush's speeches need to convey. That is what the surge is intended to accomplish if we give it time to work.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.