WASHINGTON — One way to look at the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released this week is to review what it describes as the best-case scenario.
In that scenario, Iraq's security will improve modestly over the next six to 12 months, but violence across the country will remain high. The U.S.-backed central government will grow more fragile and remain unable to govern. Shiite and Sunni Muslims will continue their bitter feuding. All sides will position themselves for an eventual American departure.
In Iraq, best-case scenarios have rarely, if ever, come to pass.
Four and a half years after President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, and after countless strategies, plans and revisions have failed to pacify the country, Bush next month faces what may be the final major decisions he can make about the war.
But even before top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker report to Congress, now set for Sept. 11, the president appears hemmed in by decisions he and others made months or years ago.
His generals are calling for troop cuts in Iraq because the strain has limited the Army's ability to respond to other crises. There is widespread agreement that the additional 28,000 U.S. troops dispatched under the so-called surge will have to begin coming home next April when their 15-month tours will start to end.
Bush's one-time hope in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who was installed in April 2006 after intervention by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has stuck to a narrow Shiite agenda. Maliki has failed to unify the government, improve basic services or pass major legislation.
Bush's surge has bought "measurable but uneven" security improvements, in the words of the intelligence estimate — but utterly failed to achieve its goal of spurring political reconciliation that would unify the country. The level of civilian casualties and attacks remains high, the estimate found.
Bush can try to move backward, by initiating a troop withdrawal. He can try to move sideways, by seeing if there's some way to replace Maliki and his democratically elected government. Or he can try to move forward, by staying the course.
Each direction carries danger.
There are now about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and, even if Bush does nothing, that number will fall to pre-surge levels of 130,000 in about a year, because of limits on the length of time soldiers can be deployed into Iraq. The secretary of the Army said this week that there will be no extensions; those lead to stress and an increase in suicides, he said.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to urge the president to reduce U.S. troops to 100,000 by next year, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.
The expected recommendation reflects deep concern with the toll that large and repeated deployments have taken on the Army and other services, hurting the military's ability to respond to other emergencies.
Bush "has backed himself into a huge corner ... because all the way back in 2002 when they dreamed up this war, they chose not to expand the size of the U.S. forces," said Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and professor of international relations at Boston University. The president now has "a lousy range of options," he said.
Senior Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia on Thursday urged Bush to announce in mid-September a withdrawal of troops, possibly 5,000, to give the Iraqi government a wake-up call. Warner made clear, however, that he wouldn't support Democratic-led efforts to force the White House to bring the troops home.
Enticing as it is, a troop withdrawal carries real risks.
Declassified portions of the intelligence estimate, which is the consensus view of all U.S. spy agencies, say that narrowing the U.S. military's role to supporting Iraqi forces and conducting counterterrorist operations "would erode security gains achieved thus far."
In other words, violence, still at unacceptable levels, would get worse, and the gains U.S. troops and Sunni tribesmen have had fighting the terrorist group al Qaida in Iraq might evaporate.
There has been growing speculation — fueled in part by Bush's own words this week — that the United States might be preparing to engineer Maliki's ouster. Rumors of a coup swept Baghdad this week, and several U.S. senators have jumped on the dump-Maliki bandwagon.
The intelligence report underscores "a growing recognition that, for all practical purposes, there is no legitimate government in Iraq," Bacevich said, and therefore "no light at the end of the tunnel."
How the United States would replace Maliki is anything but clear. He was elected by the Iraqi parliament, which was elected by the Iraqi people and there's no major push among Iraq's major political parties to remove him.
But even if Maliki were replaced, it's hardly certain that that would make much difference.
Maliki has carried out the will of Iraq's dominant but long-suffering Shiites to exert political power. Any other leader would have to do likewise.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. presidents hoped that one South Vietnamese leader after another would strengthen that country. None ever did.
The White House has given every indication that Bush will argue for the third option — staying the course and keeping a large U.S. combat force in Iraq for the rest of his presidency.
That, too, seems unlikely to bring success. Nevertheless, Democrats and some Republicans may be worried that the turmoil that's likely to follow a U.S. withdrawal would more likely be blamed on a decision to retreat rather than on the president's decision to invade Iraq in the first place.
( Renee Schoof and John Walcott contributed to this report.)