WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With an intensifying White House race drawing attention to his legacy, President George W. Bush could leave office without the baggage of complete failure in Iraq thanks to new U.S. military gains, some analysts say.
American success at quelling sectarian and insurgent violence has raised hopes that the relatively calmer conditions of the past few months in Iraq might last into early 2009, when the next U.S. president takes over.
"The overall prediction has to be that George Bush will escape this without an obviously visible abject failure. It may become that again over time. But right now, it looks like Bush will escape by the skin of his teeth," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon, who drew attention last July when he expressed optimism about the U.S. mission in Iraq in a New York Times column, estimates the odds of a major deterioration during Bush's remaining 14 months in office at less than 50 percent.
Bush's so-called surge strategy, which placed an extra 30,000 troops in Iraq this year to stabilize Baghdad and its environs, has contributed to a steep decline in violence the past two months, statistics released in recent weeks show.
Violence has fluctuated widely since the 2003 U.S. invasion. But analysts say recent improvements may continue because of more effective U.S. tactics and a rebellion against al Qaeda in Iraq by Sunni leaders in Anbar province.
Roadside bombing incidents have fallen by more than half since March. U.S. military deaths in October were at their lowest level since March 2006, and Iraqi civilian deaths were down about two-thirds from a 2007 high in January.
O'Hanlon said he believed the less violent conditions are likely to endure until Bush leaves office, despite the planned withdrawal of 20,000 U.S. combat troops by next July.
"It'll still be a lot of people getting killed," he said. "But the trajectory we're on is for muddling along into some type of gradually improving semi-stability."
O'Hanlon is not alone in expectations for Bush to achieve a grim victory by avoiding the worst of Iraq legacies.
"The Bush administration has managed to basically gain enough time to come to the end of the administration without any serious deterioration in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, a long-time critic of Bush policy in Iraq at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"He's bought himself enough time to sit out his presidency: applause. Bush won in that sense," Hiltermann added.
But others said stability in Iraq cannot be predicted, given the tenuous nature of political relations between Sunnis and Shi'ites and the fact that an estimated 15 percent of the country's population has been displaced by violence.
"This isn't anything that any of us can assign probabilities to," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Critics say Bush is concentrating too heavily on military strategy and a moribund national political dialogue, while ignoring the need for a full diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors and provincial leaders that would be necessary to forge lasting stability.
"This president is mainly interested in seeing Iraq not implode further on his watch. He wants to hand this off," said Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security.
"The next president will have very few options and will be under huge pressure to get out fast, no matter the consequences. And that could cause even more catastrophic damage to our interests in the region," she said.
Hiltermann is also pessimistic that recent gains can be sustained for long after Bush leaves office. "You have to have a serious political strategy for dealing with the vacuums that exist in Iraq," he said. "I don't see one."
But O'Hanlon believes Iraq could continue on a slow path of improvement well beyond the Bush administration, as more reconstruction aid reaches provinces and Iraqi security forces become more capable.
"That will be possible, but again: a lot of caveats, a lot of conditions and none of it adding up to a brilliant success," he said.