Iraq Study Group Points to Pullout in 2008

The findings of the Iraq Study Group, leaked this week to the media, reportedly recommend withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by early 2008. President Bush continues to reject any talk of a specific timetable.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

President Bush is back at the White House today following his summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan. This week, the White House had to deal with major leaks. Next week, it looks like the administration has a whole other set of challenges. Joining me from Tampa, Florida is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Mike.

PESCA: The full report of the Iraq Study Group is due out next Wednesday, but was the big news from that already leaked, that the group was recommending troop drawdowns in Iraq?

WILLIAMS: That's right, and the question here is how quickly. They really shied away from setting a timetable, although they've said that they'd like to see major action taken by the time of the next presidential election here in the U.S., which is 2008. So the issue now is, well, how do you have a phased withdrawal? What does that really mean? And of course there's tremendous consequence for the White House, which is how do they receive this message?

So far, President Bush seems to be saying that if the expectation is now in place, that there's going to be a quick drawdown, he thinks that's unrealistic.

PESCA: The first day's story about the pullout was that the panel was scrupulous not to offer a timetable, but today in the Washington Post, they are saying - like you just alluded to - that most forces should be out by 2008, the panel's recommending. So I wonder if you think the White House is going to see the very fact that there's a date attached as a timetable, and we know how the White House doesn't like timetables.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know what, we've got to be careful here. We know how the president doesn't like timetables. I think if you start talking to people like Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, if you start talking to people like Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, you get a much more nuanced message, Mike. A message that says, we're looking for ways to try to impact a phased redeployment, as they would put it, but not in such a way as to offer the terrorists or the bad guys any hope that we're just leaving and that they can really therefore set up shop in Iraq.

They're looking for opportunities, for example - and this is something that the Iraq Study Group has proposed - that you put more people into train the Iraqi forces to speed up that training process, which hasn't gone so well so far, but they're hoping that it can be repaired and put in place an Iraqi force that will help to stabilize the country.

PESCA: I guess the basic question is that whatever the rhetoric that comes out of the White House when the panel's report is released on Wednesday - and the rhetoric will be, we welcome the advice, we encourage dialogue. But do you really think that the White House is actually annoyed that there's this powerful panel saying, "Get out," sort of contradicting White House strategy thus far? Or do you think the White House is appreciative that the panel's recommendation will give them cover to get out without looking like they're just capitulating to Democrats?

WILLIAMS: From the president's point of view, I think the president, the man who calls himself the Great Decider, I think his feeling has been all along that he hoped the Baker Commission, the Iraqi Study Group would come along with the notion that, you know what, you can't pull out right away. That's the wrong idea. Instead, they've joined with many in the Democrats and the Congress in saying, no, we've got to pull back, and we should be setting some sort of date. So that's a big disappointment for President Bush.

But as I said to you earlier, I think there are elements within the administration that are trying to persuade the president otherwise, and so for them, I think that the Iraq Study Group report comes as support. And then of course, you've got Democrats next week holding informal hearings on the Hill about Iraq. I think you're going to hear more voices there, plus you've got confirmation hearings coming for Defense Secretary Nominee Robert Gates, and you're going to have more of these similar conversations pressure on him to state his ideas about what it means to redeploy American forces in the region.

PESCA: The Gates hearing will begin on Tuesday with the Senate Armed Services Committee. Is there any doubt he'll be confirmed?

WILLIAMS: Oh, none at all. I mean, in a sense everybody's got Rumsfeld hangover here, and so it's almost like, anybody but Rumsfeld as far as the Democrats in the majority feel and Republicans feel like much the same, so I don't think there's any question.

You know, we come back to this issue of how you use American forces, though. Gates in his prepared written statement and response to questions has said that he's not for an immediate withdrawal, so exactly what is he for? That's kind of going to be the focus of the questioning next week.

PESCA: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Mike.

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