WASHINGTON - While President Bush acknowledges the need for major changes in Iraq, he will not use this week's Iraq Study Group report as political cover for bringing troops home, his national security adviser said Sunday.
"We have not failed in Iraq," Stephen Hadley said as he made the talk show rounds. "We will fail in Iraq if we pull out our troops before we're in a position to help the Iraqis succeed."
But he added: "The president understands that we need to have a way forward in Iraq that is more successful."
The White House readied for an important week in the debate over Iraq: Bush planned a meeting Monday with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, and awaited the recommendations Wednesday from the bipartisan commission.
Yet his administration, hoping to find a new way ahead in Iraq, found itself on the defensive from the second recent leak of an insider's memo on Iraq in a week.
The latest, first reported in Sunday's New York Times, showed that 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.
Hadley played down the memo as simply a laundry list of ideas rather than a call for a new course of action.
He said that Bush - just before a pivotal election - was not portraying a different sense of the war to the public than his own defense secretary was giving him in private.
The president "has said publicly what Rumsfeld said, that things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough in Iraq," Hadley said.
Democrats did not buy that.
"The Rumsfeld memo makes it quite clear that one of the greatest concerns is the political fallout from changing course here in the United States," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The bottom line is there is no one, including the former secretary, who thought the policy the president continues to pursue makes any sense."
Bush has nominated Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld. His confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is on Tuesday.
As pressure builds for a new strategy, the report from the Iraq Study Group increasingly is viewed as perhaps clearing the way for a U.S. exit strategy in Iraq. Hadley, though, said the review will be just one factor the White House considers, along with views of congressional leaders, U.S. military commanders and the Iraqi government.
Once the president is comfortable on how to proceed, he will spell out his plan publicly in the coming weeks, Hadley said.
Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale pullout or what he calls artificial deadlines, saying Thursday, "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."
Hadley said Bush was trying to address those who contend the commission "was just going to be cover for an American withdrawal, almost regardless of what was happening on the ground. And the president needed, and felt he needed to stop that right there. That isn't graceful withdrawal, that's cut and run. And, of course, as the president's said, cut and run is not his cup of tea."
Hadley said the goal remains to shift responsibility to Iraqi forces, an increasing point of emphasis as the unpopular war rolls on.
Bush, after a meeting last week in Jordan, expressed confidence that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government can lead the country toward peace with support from the United States.
Yet Hadley was left Sunday to defend his own memo that called that very point into question.
Written on Nov. 8 but disclosed just before Bush's meeting with the Iraqi leader, the memo described al-Maliki as "either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."
Hadley said Sunday about the memo: "I made an assessment, raised a number of questions, hard questions that should have been raised. But if you look at that memo and if you look at what the president said in the press conference after the meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, it is clear that this government shares our objective for Iraq and has the will and desire to take responsibility."
The White House maintains that, taken as a whole, the memo was an expression of support for al-Maliki. Hadley rejected the suggestion that Bush administration hadn't shown much displeasure about the leak - or even that it had been authorized to pressure al-Maliki.
"It's unconscionable," he said. "It's an effort to embarrass those two leaders. It could have cast a pall over this meeting."
In Congress, Democrats and Republican continue to wrestle with how and when to withdraw troops without leaving a mess in Iraq, the kind of instability that could jeopardize the region and the United States.
The outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said Bush is "listening, learning, and he's open to take a change in course."
Bush says the U.S. will stay in Iraq as long as it takes to get the job done. That is the wrong message to Iraqis, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It tells them that it's not their responsibility, it's ours," said Levin, pushing for the start of a phased troop withdrawal.
"Nothing has changed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about the president. "He said he'll continue to be flexible. But he hasn't been flexible. He doesn't listen. And that's just a fact."
Hadley appeared on ABC's "This Week," NBC's "Meet the Press," and `Face the Nation" on CBS. Warner and Levin were on NBC, Biden was on "Fox News Sunday" while Feinstein appeared on "Late Edition" on CNN.