THE Bush Administration is so concerned about Republican congressional defections on Iraq that an internal discussion has started on a plan that might pull back troops from high-casualty areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. That's according to a report in the New York Times.
Predictably, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that a debate is even under way about withdrawing those forces and rejected the suggestion that political judgments are being substituted for military ones.
That leaves Americans, an impatient people who long ago grew disillusioned by the administration's serial misrepresentations on Iraq, to wonder whether the Times story is wishful thinking based on unreliable anonymous sources.
But if the administration isn't thinking along the reported lines, it would be an unexpected development from members of a group that, whatever else they may be, have been masters of shaping the political environment.
Unless their instincts have suddenly abandoned them, they can still read polls and do the arithmetic on their shrinking support in Congress. Their choice is to be ready to react or be carried away by the anti-war tide. If they are not talking about a Plan B, then they are talking about staying the course to irrelevancy - and surely they are smarter than that.
The White House spokesman's denial might have been sincere in a finely parsed, legalistic way. No doubt there is no debate as far as his boss, a President who has always confused stubbornness with leadership, is concerned. Nothing changes George W. Bush's mind - but nothing is what he is getting from sticking to his failed Iraq policy. Even this President will eventually have to bend before reality.
Because of all that has gone before, the White House denial that it is not exploring other options will be greeted with skepticism if not cynicism. Tragically, much of what this administration has said about Iraq has turned out to be false.
No weapons of mass destruction were found. Iraq wasn't involved in the attacks of 9/11 and wasn't a major front in the war on terror until Mr. Bush's invasion made it the recruiting and proving ground of choice for terrorists. American forces were only briefly viewed as liberators and are now blamed as occupiers. For the longest time, the administration wouldn't even admit that the insurgents were a threat, let alone that Iraq was in the grip of a civil war.
The politicians have lagged behind the public on Iraq, but that is changing fast. Democrats and, increasingly, Republicans seem more determined to end a war that long ago lost its goals and the support of the American people. Republicans, in particular, need to defy this President and insist that he produce a plan for the troops to start coming home.
To those who think there is still a mission to be accomplished, that an American-style democracy will rise amidst the ashes of a country whose people mostly blame Americans for their troubles, the suggestion that the administration is discussing how to disengage should be a wake-up call.
And if the White House isn't considering another policy less costly to the lives of American troops, then shame on it.