Presidents don't usually hoist their own policy trial balloons. They leave that to other--ordinarily anonymous--members of their Administrations.
So, did President Bush use his Wednesday press conference to reveal a key--and set--element of the new Iraq strategy he's to announce in a January speech? In short, has the President decided to employ the surge option, increasing overall Army and Marine force levels in Iraq to create a surge aimed at what the President called "victory in Iraq"?
The idea of increasing force levels by 15,000 to 30,000 people is one of which Pentagon brass have apparently been scornful. Yet, the President says that he's ordered new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, currently in Iraq on a fact-finding tour, to advise him as to whether such a surge is advisable and if so, how it could best be done.
Of course, as many have pointed out, the more basic question about such a surge is what its purpose would be. Military analysts, like retired General Barry McCaffrey, seem to say that an Iraq "solution" can only be achieved politically, not militarily. If his critique represents a sizable body of opinion among America's general officer corps, they may deem a surge as dangerous and unlikely to change things on the ground.
Could this presidential announcement be nothing more than a feint, intended to throw people off? I doubt it. I don't think the President would have spoken so overtly of the surge option unless he really was considering it and likely to embrace it. But it's uncharacteristic of this President to speak so openly of the options he's weighing before announcing a policy.
In the end, there appears to be no upside to the President tipping his hand on a surge policy that he has no intention of pursuing. It's likely to elicit fierce derision if it becomes the President's announced policy. Given that reality, I surmise that he really is biased toward upping the force levels in Iraq. A trail balloon and a subsequent retreat to a fallback policy risks expending more political capital than the President has right now.
Bob Gates may be President Bush's surge protector, the new kid in the administration who, contrary to the Clark Clifford scenarios that I and others have written for him, is actually as hawkish about Iraq as the President and the Senate's number one surge proponent, John McCain. Gates may be the one to whom the President will point as recommending the surge. If the surge works, the President gets the credit. If it fails, Mr. Bush may try accepting the resignation of yet another Secretary of Defense on whom the political blame can be placed.