President Bush still has to learn "the buck stops here" when it comes to presidential decisions.

The "decider" and commander in chief seems to be trying to pass the buck, particularly if the war in Iraq implodes and he has to bring troops home from his disastrous invasion of Iraq.

The president is counting on Gen. David Petraeus -- the top military commander in Iraq -- and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take the fall if his troop "surge" fails.

Bush is a long way from that mirage even with an expected Pentagon buildup of U.S. troops to 160,000 by midsummer.

Bush's war of choice -- now in its fifth year -- has taken 3,368 American lives and wounded thousands more Americans.

The death toll for the Iraqi people is reportedly in the hundreds of thousands, although the Iraqi Health Ministry says it will no longer disclose the casualty figures.

Bush had a 25-minute telephone call with al-Maliki earlier this week after feeling the domestic political pressure following his veto of war funding legislation that called for U.S. troops to withdraw, starting Oct. 1.

Vice President Dick Cheney followed up with a personal visit with al-Maliki in Baghdad, where he told the Iraqi that the U.S. has a dim view of the Iraqi parliament's plan to take a two-month vacation this summer.

Both Bush and Congress have laid down the law to the beleaguered al-Maliki with this message: If his government doesn't pass an oil law divvying up Iraq's vast oil reserves among the three ethnic-religious groups and if he fails to reconcile the various Iraqi factions, the U.S. just might just pack up and leave.

This is the same Bush administration trying to throw its weight around after destroying Iraq and destabilizing the entire Middle East. But al-Maliki will be there to catch the blame.

Last week in a speech to the Associated General Contractors of America, Bush put the burden on Petraeus and quoted the commander as saying that "it's going to be at least until the end of this summer that he will know whether or not the new strategy (of escalating the troops by thousands) has achieved successes."

But White House spokesman Tony Snow rejected any suggestion that Petraeus' comments pointed to September as a deadline. The president was not accepting any troop withdrawal date, Snow insisted.

More ominous is a report Wednesday by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that an unnamed Saudi source said Bush told the Saudis that he will not withdraw from Iraq during his presidency.

If true, that's more in line with speculation that Bush wants to run out the clock and pass the war on to his successor at the White House.

However, it's not far-fetched to believe that Republicans will wake up and see their re-election chances flame out if Bush continues the war until 2008.

The latest CBS-New York Times poll said the president has dropped to 24 percent in his approval ratings on his handling of the war. President Nixon's Watergate scandal-plagued polls fell to 23 percent when he was forced to resign from office.

But the same CBS-TV poll said 56 percent of those sampled believe that congressional Democrats should fund the war -- despite a presidential veto of a bill that included a withdrawal timetable.

The White House has translated any effort to withhold war funding as a signal that Congress is failing to support the troops, tying the hands of the generals and acquiescing to "surrender."

In his remarks to the contractors, the president blamed al-Qaida -- the terrorist network -- for ratcheting up the sectarian violence in Baghdad between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the high-profile suicide bombings.

"The most visible and violent front of this global war is Iraq," Bush said. "It's a tough fight ... . Illegal armed groups continue their attacks, insurgents remain deadly" and have to be dealt with.

"Al-Qaida is public enemy No. 1 in Iraq," Bush declared. "It's in our interest to stay in the fight."

Soon after the war started and all the false rationales justifying the invasion were falling like 10 pins, Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary, stepped up to the podium in the White House pressroom and picked the battleground, declaring: "Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism." And al-Qaida took him at his word.

The mantra for Bush's new strategy in the war is called "the way forward." But if Americans have any say, it should be "the way out."