(AP) - By putting the brakes on troop withdrawals from Iraq and shortening combat tours, President George W. Bush has thrust his war strategy into a holding pattern through January, when a new commander in chief with a new defense team will begin setting his or her own course in Iraq.
The next administration will face the same Iraq complexities, but not necessarily the same circumstances or same choices. The dynamic nature of war makes it all but certain that the battlefield situation will be different, for better or for worse, when the next president enters the White House on Jan. 20.
What is unlikely to change much by then is the size of the U.S. force in Iraq. The current total of 160,000 is scheduled to shrink to about 140,000 by the end of July, but big cuts beyond that are unlikely. The 140,000 figure is several thousand higher than has prevailed through most of the 5-year-old war.
In his speech Thursday, Bush made clear he is in no hurry to reduce the force. He said his field commander will have "all the time he needs" to consider when and whether to resume a troop drawdown.
It is no surprise that Bush would see merit on going slow with troop reductions, given the tenuous nature of the security gains his strategy has achieved over the past several months and the fact that both Democratic contenders for his job have pledged to pull out of Iraq and end the war. The higher the starting point for a pullout under a Democratic president, the longer it would take.
Bush asserted that his strategy, to put an extra 30,000 troops in Iraq and place a higher priority on establishing security in Baghdad, has "renewed and revived" prospects for success. He offered no detailed plan either to achieve success or to get the Iraqis to settle their own differences.
Democrats remain unconvinced that Bush's approach will force the Iraqis to settle their differences, which Democrats believe will come only with a a declared U.S. policy of winding down the war.
"What the president did today was to reinforce America's open-ended commitment in Iraq by suspending troop reductions for an unlimited period of time," said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. In his view, that perpetuates an Iraqi dependency on U.S. help and eases pressure on them to reach a political settlement.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who carries with him a digital clock showing the hours, minutes and seconds left in his tenure, told a Senate panel on Thursday that in his final eight months at the Pentagon he wants to forge a bipartisan consensus on how to play the "endgame" in Iraq.
In Gates' view, that should include agreement that a relatively small U.S. force - he offered no numbers - should remain in Iraq for a long time as part of a global effort to hunt down terrorists and to train with Iraqis as they undertake a yearslong effort to build a viable self-defense force.
Gates will not be around in the next administration, nor will many of the other key actors. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, could well retire, and it is widely anticipated that Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Baghdad, will be given a new assignment this year. There also will be a new chief of Central Command, replacing the retiring Adm. William J. Fallon.
Regardless of how the presidential candidates develop their campaign positions on Iraq, the winner will have to adjust once in the White House.
"We don't really know what any of these candidates would do in Iraq once they took office," Stephen Biddle, an Iraq specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview Thursday. "There is a lot more freedom of maneuver in all of their positions than is sometimes appreciated."
The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are listening to a range of advisers on Iraq. Sen. John McCain, for example, consults with two people closely associated with Bush's change of strategy in 2007, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and military historian Frederick Kagan.
Among Sen. Barack Obama's top advisers on Iraq are Susan Rice, a former Clinton administration State Department official, and Richard Danzig, who served as Clinton's Navy Secretary. Another Obama backer is Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana who headed a study group that recommended in late 2006 that Bush pull all combat forces out of Iraq.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's top staff advisers on Iraq are her policy director, Neera Tanden, and foreign policy director Lee Feinstein.