John Warner to the Rescue?

Some interesting Iraq developments this afternoon, within minutes of each other:

First, the latest National Intelligence Estimate – the first exclusively on Iraq since January – was released, and its title sums up its findings nicely – “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: Some Security Progress but Political Reconciliation Elusive.”

One month before Congress is supposed to receive the ballyhooed Petraeus/White House troop surge progress report, the N.I.E. seems to undercut the central premise of the escalation: that added military presence would provide the security needed for Iraq’s factions to forge a political consensus.

The second development, not coincidentally, came minutes after the N.I.E.’s release, when Republican Senator John Warner called a press conference to announce that he would ask President Bush to institute on September 15 “the first step in a withdrawal of our forces.”

This would seem to be a major development – a moderate, respected Republican legislator breaking with the White House as the critical September progress report nears. After all, the talk all summer – until the recent raft of “the surge is working” stories – was that key Republicans like Warner, who have deferred to Bush on Iraq despite their own reservations, would finally defect in September.

But is Warner’s move a defection? He is notoriously hard to read, not to mention reverent of presidential authority in matters of war. He said he would counsel Bush to withdraw about 5,000 troops by Christmas – but this may not be far from what the White House was planning anyway.

The key question remains: Is Warner prepared to back legislation that would compel the President to act? So far, withdrawal timetable legislation has failed, thanks to presidential filibuster threats, presidential vetoes, and the lack of a 2/3 majority to over-ride such vetoes. The White House has made clear that it won’t be budged – and, in fact, is counting on ads like this to keep wavering Republicans in line come the middle of September. To force the President’s hand, congressional Democrats need Republican defections – and more than just a few of them.

So what was Warner really saying? If Bush resists his suggestion – and the initial White House response suggests he will – will Warner be joined by other Republicans in delivering the same message? At what point will he call for timetable legislation – or is that something he’ll never do? And, more broadly, will the N.I.E. spur other previously hesitant Republicans to go farther than he did today in calling for an end to the war? John Warner to the Rescue?