updated 12/5/2006 10:07:25 AM ET 2006-12-05T15:07:25

Make no mistake about it, change is coming in President Bush's Iraq policy. After stubbornly pursuing a stay-the-course policy into a fourth year of war, Bush is being told it's time for a new direction - by everyone from U.S. voters and a blue-ribbon panel to his own national security adviser and ousted defense secretary.

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The big question is, how far is Bush willing to bend? And can he be persuaded to change a policy he's never seemed to doubt?

"I'm listening to the Iraqis, I'm going to listen to members of Congress, I want to listen to Baker-Hamilton," Bush told Fox News Channel about upcoming recommendations, including those due Wednesday from the prestigious Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.

"My attitude is I ought to absorb and listen to everything that's being said because I'm not satisfied with the progress being made in Iraq," the president said Monday.

Bush faces some difficult choices
Bush may have to finally back away from sweeping imperatives such as spreading democracy across the Middle East and his oft-stated assertion that the U.S. won't stand down until Iraq can defend itself.

But Bush may do it gently, and he might not even acknowledge that a course change is under way.

"His default position may be to make changes while saying that he's not making changes," said Fred Greenstein, a political science professor at Princeton University.

"I just don't think he's got any room to just dig in and not do anything. That would be like jumping off a cliff," Greenstein said. "And Bush doesn't strike me as a guy who jumps off a lot of cliffs."

Bush had been gradually moving away from "stay the course," although variations on the theme still crop up, including as recently as last week during a news conference in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. "So we'll be in Iraq until the job is complete," Bush said, adding that he wasn't looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq."

Waiting on the Iraq study group report
But many in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike, were looking for just that - a graceful exit.

And many hoped that the Baker-Hamilton report would provide such an opportunity.

"There is no obvious correct policy in Iraq," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and one of the Iraq Study Group's many advisers. "What matters is getting a better policy in Iraq."

O'Hanlon said Bush needs to listen to the panel's recommendations. Still, O'Hanlon said he is worried that expectations were being set too high, with some people "presupposing that because Baker and Hamilton are involved, they must necessarily create wisdom from on high."

The Iraqi Study Group is widely expected to recommend a plan for the U.S. to begin withdrawing its 15 combat brigades from Iraq - whether Iraqi forces are ready or not.

And, while the report is not expected to call for a formal timetable, by some accounts it will suggest that the bulk of combat forces be out by 2008, and the U.S. role transformed from combat to one of support. There are now about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The study group also is expected to advocate a more aggressive diplomatic effort in the region, including reaching out to Iran and Syria, an overture that Bush has resisted strenuously.

Timetable for change?
Bush's stubbornness may be a factor in what could be a rocky period ahead as his administration slowly adjusts to changes and tries to justify them. He's never been shy about proclaiming progress in Iraq, even while acknowledging setbacks.

"His rhetoric is at odds with the general momentum" toward a U.S. withdrawal, said P.J. Crowley, a military and national security aide in the Clinton administration.

Crowley said he thinks the administration will take the Iraq Study Group's recommendations under advisement, then base a rationale for troop reduction on al-Maliki's own claim that Iraqi forces could take control by June.

"Whether the administration can afford to wait six months before all of this takes place remains to be seen," Crowley said.

Recently leaked memos show dissent even among top members of Bush's national security team toward Bush's long-held "stay the course" strategy.

One revealed that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called for a "major adjustment" in U.S. tactics on Nov. 6 - the day before an election that cost Republicans the Congress and Rumsfeld his job as defense secretary.

In another leaked memo, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, judges al-Maliki either "ignorant of what is going on" in Iraq or not up to the job of controlling sectarian violence.

"It used to be when you talked to people inside the administration, you'd hear one consistent message on Iraq. Now, everyone you call is telling you something different," said Michele Flournoy, a former deputy secretary of defense for policy and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Defiance at the White House is slowly giving way to setting the stage for changes that may be inevitable.

Hadley, for instance, now speaks of a "new way forward." And Bush, meeting on Monday with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, cited a "need to give the government Iraq more capability as soon as possible."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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