In all the debate about the September 15 deadline for Crocker and Petraeus to report on the progress of the surge, little attention has been paid to one important point: George Bush is still 'the decider.'
Recall that September 15 is nothing more than the date of a progress report. Nothing in that report can force a change in policy. The only way to force a 'course change' is to convince President Bush to institute one. And that will only happen if a large number of Congressional Republicans tell him that they will stand with the Democrats to force a drawdown. According to Lindsey Graham, that's not going to happen:
"At the end of the day, all of this hand-wringing needs to be understood (in the context) of how Congress works: There will always be 33 of us, as long as there is not a complete meltdown, to support a military strategy that is aggressive and is not based on needs of the next election," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Congress has essentially hit pause on the war debate until next month, when Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, delivers a detailed summary of progress -- or lack thereof. Almost all the Republican members have said they will withhold judgment until they review the Petraeus report.
"Where everyone is at this juncture, it seems to me, is (waiting) to hear back in September about … where the generals believe we are in terms of conditions on the ground militarily, and at that point make determinations about what is necessary in our national security interest," said Ed Gillespie, a top Bush adviser.
In other words, Bush will not adjust the strategy if Petraeus says it is working. And there are growing indications Petraeus will report significant military progress tempered by continued political problems in Iraq, according to Republicans in close contact with Bush.
I'm not convinced that there will always be 33 Senators with the President as long as there's no meltdown. It's rare for politicians facing re-election to embrace a policy that they think might cost them their jobs.
However, given the hopeful signs of progress in Operation Phantom Thunder and the remarks of administration officials, along with the comments from Congressional leaders, it's beginning to seem more likely than not that September 15 will mark a milepost, but not a course change.