Rumsfeld Memo Adds Fuel to Ongoing Iraq Debate

From the leaked Rumsfeld memo to the forthcoming report by the Iraq Study Group, the debate over the war is dominating the news.

Over the weekend, newspapers published a memo by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, written two days before he resigned and revealing deeper doubts on Iraq than he had ever expressed in public. Tomorrow, President Bush's nominee for Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, is expected to get tough questions tomorrow on the situation there. And on Wednesday, the independent, bipartisan Iraq Study Group is expected to give its recommendations on the situation.

So it will be a busy week for the president on the Iraq front. And he and his administration are sending a mixed message.

In Amman, Jordan, a few days ago, President Bush was still talking tough about Iraq. While the president has dropped the phrase "stay the course," his latest terms didn't sound all that different.

"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," said Bush. He went on, though, to say, "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

But if the president talks of digging in, others in the Bush administration are signaling that it's time for a major shift in strategy. In the memo that surfaced over the weekend, outgoing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suggested that the U.S. might pull some of its forces out of Iraq. Rumsfeld said the move would send a message to the Iraqis that they "have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."

The Rumsfeld memo was splashed across the Sunday papers, presenting a challenge for the President's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. He appeared on ABC's This Week, where he told host George Stephanopoulos that the memo did not mean the President and Rumsfeld were at odds.

"So, the President agrees a major adjustment is necessary?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"He said that," replied Hadley.”[The president] has said publicly what Secretary Rumsfeld said, that things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough in Iraq. We have to make some changes. We need a new way forward in Iraq, and that's what this policy review is all about."

This is just the latest memo to come out in the press in recent days. Hadley himself wrote a memo that was leaked to the press. He, too, suggested changes in U.S. policy and criticized the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

When Hadley made the rounds of the morning news shows yesterday, NBC's Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, wanted to know why President Bush was praising the prime minister last week when Hadley had questioned the Iraqi leader's basic knowledge of events in his country earlier in the month. Here's the exchange:

Russert: "So in two weeks, Mr. Maliki is no longer ignorant and is now capable and the right guy?"

Hadley: "He needs to get better information. We talked about that, he understands that, he needs to perform better; his government needs to perform better. If you listen to Prime Minister Maliki, that's what he says."

When a White House official like the National Security Adviser appears on every Sunday morning news program, it's usually a sign the White House has a signal it wants to send.

And right now, that message seems to be that the White House has already weighed the various options the Iraq Study Group is expected to propose later this week.

But some Democrats say the President's team is coming to terms with the realities in Iraq too late. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) appeared on Fox News Sunday. "Well, there was a clear disconnect between what the administration's been saying the last year and what's been going on in the ground," said the senator. "And the Rumsfeld memo makes it quite clear that one of the greatest concerns is the political fallout from changing course here in the United States politically and how to deal with that. But, the bottom line is, there is no one, including the former secretary, who thought the policy the president continues to pursue makes any sense."

Also on Fox News Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agreed that the president's policy isn't working. But Graham did not call for U.S. troops to come home. "I'd rather be divided as a nation and win, than united and lose. This is, to me, the central battlefront on the war on terror. We need more troops, not less. The Iraqi people need some breathing space from this violence. We've screwed this war up in many ways. You can't have a democracy with this level of violence. When you have a high-crime area...you don't send less police, you send more. We need more troops in Iraq at least in the short term."

Today, President Bush is sitting down with Abdul-Assiz al-Hakim, a leading Shiite Cleric who heads one of the biggest blocs in Iraq's parliament. The meeting in the Oval Office is one more sign that this president —while remaining firm and resolute — is looking for new friends and new ideas in Iraq.

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