WASHINGTON -- Determination high in the Bush administration to begin irreversible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq this year is reinforced by the presence at the State Department of the most dominant secretary since Henry Kissinger three decades ago. Condoleezza Rice is expected to support administration officials who want to leave even if what is left behind does not constitute perfection.
Amid the presidential campaign's furious debate over Iraq, I reported last Sept. 20 ("Getting Out of Iraq") about strong feeling in the policymaking apparatus to get out of Iraq in 2005 even if democracy and peace had not been achieved there. My column evoked widespread expressions of disbelief, but changes over the last six months have only strengthened the view of my Bush administration sources that the escape from Iraq should begin once a permanent government is in place in Baghdad.
The most obvious change is the improved situation on the ground in Iraq, where it is no longer preposterous to imagine local security forces in control. Subtler is the advent of Secretary of State Rice. This willowy, vulnerable-looking woman wields measurably more power than Colin Powell, the robust general who preceded her. Officials who know her well believe she favors the escape from Iraq.
"She is not controlled by the neo-cons insisting on achieving a perfect democracy before we go," a colleague told me. That reflects not only the national consensus but also the preponderance of Republican opinion. Without debating the wisdom of military intervention in Iraq two years ago, President Bush's supporters believe it now is time to go and leave the task of subduing the insurgents to Iraqis.
In my Sept. 20 column, I speculated that Rice would replace Powell at State, that she would be replaced as national security adviser by her deputy Stephen Hadley and that Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz would succeed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at Defense. I was correct in two out of three, because Rumsfeld is staying on at the Pentagon.
When I reported that Rice, Hadley and Wolfowitz all would opt for withdrawal, skeptics claimed that I had misrepresented Wolfowitz and ignored his neo-conservative mindset. In fact, Wolfowitz resents the neo-con label and privately regards its use as a catchword to be a form of anti-Semitism.
Nor is Rumsfeld a neo-con determined to spread democracy to every corner of the world and eager to place U.S. boots wherever needed. He is a pragmatist who views an intrusive U.S. occupation in Iraq as a political benefit for the insurgency. Rumsfeld consequently opposes the addition of more American troops, which is advocated by some supporters and by many critics of President Bush.
The central figure in shaping the policy is Rice. Not since the days of Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft has a secretary of state had the power position of working with a former deputy at the National Security Council, as Rice does now. Furthermore, she is President Bush's closest adviser. During Bush's first term, he spent vastly more time with Rice than with Powell or Rumsfeld.
Actually, withdrawal from Iraq short of an absolute military victory seems more feasible today than it did last September. Six months ago, it appeared that U.S. officials might have to ignore a bloody secular conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Lethal though it is, the current insurgency does not rise to the level of a genuine civil war.
But how does the president rationalize an escape from Iraq with his Inaugural Address's embrace of a Wilsonian or neo-conservative dogma to spread democracy worldwide? Bush officials who want to reduce the military profile in the region argue that the grassroots democratic sentiment boiling up in Lebanon is to get rid of Syrian troops, not to welcome American troops.
Escape from Iraq for George W. Bush, however, does abandon the neo-con dream of micromanaging creation of a democratic state in Iraq. Since I wrote about this option last September amid much skepticism, 500 more U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, bringing the toll to 1,500. That is too heavy a price to continue paying for not letting Iraqis try to make the best of their country now that we have eliminated Saddam Hussein.