President Barack Obama is working toward a decision on how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. He has had two meetings with senior military commanders, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said they prepared a series of options for the new president - including, but not limited to, his campaign pledge to remove most American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.
During an election campaign, rhetoric often soars to crowd-dazzling levels, like this statement last July from candidate Barack Obama.
"It is time to bring this war in Iraq to a close! And that is what we will be working with and working on when I am President of the United States. That's the choice in this election," he said.
In quieter moments candidate Obama explained his position with a bit more nuance, but still stuck to his basic plan.
"I would be deliberate and careful in how we got out. I would bring our troops home at a pace of one-to-two brigades per month. And at that pace we would have our combat troops out in 16 months," he said.
Mr. Obama also said, at various times, that he would leave an unspecified number of troops in Iraq to train and support the Iraqi military, to provide security for that effort and for U.S. diplomats, and to hunt for terrorists. He also said he would listen to the recommendations of military commanders.
And most of his comments only referred to combat troops, who are, only about one-third of the 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq. The rest are support units, some of which also help Iraqi forces, and U.S. officials now say some of the combat troops could be given new missions, such as training the Iraqis, which would move them out of the "combat" category.
But much of the detail is lost on many voters, who tend to focus on simple, general points - end the war, bring the troops home within 16 months.
Working Out the Details
Since the election, and especially since the inauguration last week, officials have been trying to tamp down expectations, as White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs did on Wednesday.
"We're no longer involved in a debate about whether, but how and when. That's a process the president wants to take seriously," he said.
Defense Secretary Gates said that process involves a series of meetings with top military officers, including one last week and one this week, and the preparation of an options paper.
"We are working on a range of options for the president that range from essentially a completion of the work of the brigade combat teams, and a transition to [an] assist and advisory role beginning at 16 months and then, at various intervals, proceeding further forward from that. And we're drawing those out for him, along with the risks attendant to each," said Gates.
Among the risks, according to senior commanders and Secretary Gates, is the potential reversal of the hard won security gains of the last year-and-a-half.
"Though violence has remained low, there is still the potential for setbacks, and there may be hard days ahead for our troops," he said.
Withdrawal Dos and Don'ts
Analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said President Obama needs to be careful with his Iraq withdrawal plan, and possibly put off much of the drawdown until after the series of elections in Iraq this year.
"Iraq is inherently dynamic and unpredictable. And the better part of wisdom here is to allow for that in the way we shape policy. Mr. Obama can still keep a goal of getting out as quickly as possible. And even, if he wants to, keep reiterating the 16-month timeline, although I think it's a bit optimistic. But the important thing is to preserve flexibility, watch conditions on the ground and make sure we help the Iraqis with a stable transition," he said.
O'Hanlon said President Obama is facing "a different level of pragmatic decision-making" than he had to deal with during the campaign.
He said in spite of the campaign promise of a 16-month withdrawal, politically, President Obama can afford to be careful, and even to adopt a conditions-based approach similar to former-President Bush's policy.
"Of course he can get away with it, because most people in this country are either moderate Democrats or independents or Republicans, all of whom, as broad interest groups anyway, care more about the outcome in Iraq, and about the fact that we will ultimately leave, than about the exact schedule on which we do so," he said.
Analysis, Consultation Results Expected Soon
In any case, the broad outlines of the withdrawal schedule are established in the new U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which sets a three-year deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops.
Many people are eager for President Obama himself to sort all this out. But that will have to wait until the current analysis and consultation process is completed. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs would not say when that will be, but he indicated it won't be long.
"I think it will be relatively soon. I don't want to set an exact date, though I think it will be relatively shortly," Gibbs said.
President Obama is getting plenty of advice on what to do about Iraq, and how to balance needs there with calls for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan - advice from military and civilian officials, commentators and other experts. But he also made clear last year that, as president, he will make the final decisions about what is in the strategic interest of the United States.