Is Bush flip-flopping on stay the course?

The Bush administration is suddenly dropping its “stay the course” slogan, proclaiming that it is all about “flexibility” on Iraq, according to White House press secretary Tony Snow. “It left the wrong impression about what was going on,” Snow said.

Last week, news reports quoted “senior American officials” saying the administration was drafting a “timetable” or “blueprint” that it would demand the Iraqi government fulfill — a set of unspecified “milestones” that the officials claimed would measure progress.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey Jr., and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad held a Baghdad press conference Oct. 24 announcing a vague “timetable” for steps it said the Iraqi government had to take, extending over as long as two years, but they did not link accomplishment of any of these steps to even a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops. As Casey said more U.S. troops might be sent to Iraq, more than 100 active-duty service members announced they have signed an appeal to Congress to support “prompt withdrawal” of all U.S. troops and bases from Iraq. They aim to present 2,000 signatures to the new Congress in January.

Many political commentators characterized the Bush administration moves as a crass pre-election effort to seem to be doing something new on Iraq without making any real policy change, while also shifting blame to the Iraqi government. The New York Times called it “stage-managing” a “supposed change of heart” by a president “worried that his party could lose some of its iron grip on power in the congressional elections next month.”

Just weeks before the elections, a new poll found that seven in ten Americans favor congressional candidates who will pursue a “new approach” to foreign policy. This included almost half of those identifying themselves as Republicans. The poll, conducted Oct. 6-15 by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), found that large majorities want less emphasis on military force and more on diplomacy, multilateral cooperation and working through the UN.

Meanwhile, monthly U.S. troop deaths in Iraq rose to the highest of the past year, with the October toll at 91 so far, and violence and civilian deaths soared.

The White House moves also followed heavy media reporting that a high-powered bipartisan “Iraq Study Group” — co-chaired by top Bush family fixer James Baker, who was secretary of state in the Bush I administration — will recommend major shifts on Iraq at the end of this year or early next year. The other co-chair is former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. The group’s members include top figures from the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

The main options the group is considering, according to a report in The New York Sun, involve “political accommodation” with insurgents, and/or implementing a phased withdrawal plan to bases within Iraq or in nearby countries. The latter is similar to the bill introduced by Democratic Rep. John Murtha.

Another option reportedly under consideration is a coup — imposition of a non-elected “national salvation government,” a step being advocated by some Baathist forces who have apparently been shopping for U.S. backing. But divisions are reported to be emerging among Baathist groups, and a coup would require a major military force and would be an obvious embarrassment for the U.S. Another option mentioned is dividing the country along sectarian lines, but this finds little support in Iraq.

There appears to be “virtual consensus” on the necessity for regional diplomacy, the UK Guardian reports, including negotiations with Syria, Iran and other countries who can influence developments within Iraq. In addition, according to The Sun, the group may recommend new efforts to involve the UN and European Union.

The Baker-Hamilton recommendations may provide window-dressing for extending a more covert form of U.S. occupation. But they are widely seen as reflecting a conclusion by some influential political circles that the current Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policy has no hope of succeeding and is damaging U.S. interests. They may be seeking to extricate the U.S. from disaster while saving face and protecting the wider interests of the U.S. ruling class in the region and globally.

With the 2008 presidential race going into high gear the day after the Nov. 7 elections, Baker may also be eager to defuse Iraq as a lethal issue that could hurt Republicans’ chances of holding onto the White House.

“The Republicans know that if they go into the elections of 2008 with this Iraq war hanging over their head, that they’re going to suffer a massive political defeat,” journalist Robert Dreyfuss told Democracy Now last week.

At a press conference Oct. 25 President Bush dodged questions about a long-term military presence in Iraq. Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, noted that Congress has gone on record declaring the U.S. will not establish permanent bases there. The measure survived two Republican moves to squelch it. “It’s a small step, but politically important,” Martin emphasized.