President Bush has outlined his "way forward" for Iraq and the battle lines are clearly drawn, both in Washington and in Baghdad. Here in the capital of the free world, the fight is between two factions of our political class each of which is trying to avoid tasting the bitter along with the sweet.
Bush wants to win in Iraq but doesn't want to accept full responsibility for the cost of victory. The opposition wants to lose but doesn't want to accept any responsibility for the cost of defeat. There's no question about who is more honorable in this situation, but nobody takes any prizes.
Bush is fortunate to have opponents like Sens. Ted Kennedy and Dick Durbin. They make him look resolute.
For three long years the president has stuck with a strategy of treading lightly and leaving barely discernible footprints. The idea was that if we avoided rubbing Iraqi noses in the brutal fact that we had conquered their country the "insurgency" would die out for lack of fuel.
It doesn't take hindsight to realize that this idea was foolish. Bush and Michael Moore shared a diagnosis of the problem to be solved in Iraq. The porcine propagandist viewed Iraqi insurgents as latter day minutemen fighting for their freedom. The president and his national security team adopted this theory when they decided that we could disarm the insurgency by making our forces conspicuously benign.
Of course violence in Iraq was never the result of resentment created by our occupation. It was the natural result of ancient hatreds combined with a power vacuum. Sunni and Shia will kill each other given half a chance. A disconcerting number of Muslims of either stripe will kill Americans given half a chance. When we took Iraq but shrank from controlling it we gave killers the chance to kill.
The president's new way forward seems to recognize this, which represents significant progress. But on a number of key points his message is fuzzy.
At last, the president says, we are committed to filling the power vacuum and controlling Iraq. Our troops will have less restrictive rules of engagement. This is encouraging, but the president didn't tell us much about precisely how the ROE in Iraq will change.
The president also says we will defend Iraq against the outside interference that has fueled the fighting there. Here again, it is not at all clear what he means.
Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.
If this means we're going to start striking targets in Iran and Syria and sending captured Iranian terrorists to Club Gimo, the new way forward will truly be a turning point.
Unfortunately it probably means no such thing and it may mean nothing at all, the recent raid on an Iranian consulate notwithstanding. Imagine the outcry that would arise if the terrorist infrastructure in Syria started falling prey to precision guided munitions. The more likely any tactical or strategic innovation is to work the more passionately Democrats will fight it.
The president is also vague about another crucial aspect of his new approach to Iraq. He says, quite correctly that we cannot accept failure in Iraq. He says that the Iraqi government has to perform better if we are to succeed and that "our commitment is not open-ended." If the Iraqi government can't do what needs to be done it "will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."
This is widely-interpreted as a threat that America will bug out of Iraq if Prime Minister al-Maliki and his cohorts don't get their stuff together at last. But this interpretation makes complete nonsense of the president's argument. If we can't accept failure in Iraq our commitment is open-ended and we can't punish the Maliki government for failure by upping stakes and leaving it to stew in its own juice.
If that's what the president is threatening he is making a mistake every parent has made at least once. If, for example, your child isn't doing well enough in school you can't say "education is vitally important and if you don't do better I'm pulling you out of school and shipping you off to work in a Pakistani rug factory." Even dim-witted kids can recognize a contradiction.
Maybe the president means that if Maliki & Co. can't perform they will lose our support and we will find other people to do their job. Perhaps it's just our commitment to the present government that isn't open-ended.
Bush may recognize that victory in Iraq will entail keeping a powerful American presence there for decades. Long after the violence subsides we will have to keep the peace among Iraq's factions by holding the balance of power. We will also have to hold Iraq in our orbit and outside that of Iran. The president may know this, but he isn't eager to advertise it.
The ambiguities in the president's speech form a pattern. He consistently glosses over the scope of our project in the Middle East and avoids confronting the cost of pushing it through to a successful conclusion. Any meaningful change in the rules of engagement will mean that our forces will become more lethal and cause more collateral damage. A serious effort to check Iran and Syria will greatly expand the war and might well turn it into a regional conflagration. Securing victory in Iraq will entail a substantial permanent commitment of American troops.
Our engagement in the Middle East will be bloodier, bigger, and longer than Bush can bring himself to admit. If we are serious about victory, America will be reviled around the world as it has not been reviled since Vietnam. Leftists around the world will attack Bush as a war criminal, far more than they already do, and in larger number. He may even suffer the fate of the late Generalissimo Pinochet and be subject to charges someday, somewhere. Leftists never forgive a victorious foe. Domestic enemies will spit on our troops once again, both literally and figuratively.
Our president has done nothing to prepare us for all this. His failure may result from political calculation. The White House may believe that America can't handle the truth and he might be right. I fear, however, that the president hasn't prepared us for the consequences of fighting to win because he is not prepared for them himself. If he isn't, the new way forward won't take us very far.
So much for the president. What about the opposition? Bush, for all his failings, wants what is best for America. Democrats don't. They want a humiliating defeat in Iraq, partly as a stick with which to beat Bush and partly because many of them don't like what America stands for and they want to see her diminished. They just can't admit this to the electorate. Anti-Americanism won't play in Peoria.
It was painful to write that last paragraph. I used to be a Democrat. It would be comforting to believe that Democrats really think America's interests would be served by retreating from Iraq. Unfortunately, the facts won't bear that interpretation.
None of the people who speak for the Democrat Party have explained how we can withdraw from Iraq without precipitating a catastrophe. For that matter they haven't yet explained how we could have left Saddam in power thumbing his nose at us without precipitating a catastrophe.
When Democrats complain that we should never have been in Iraq and argue that we should now withdraw, they are arguing for an American catastrophe. They are self-consciously urging that we fail to meet militant Islam's existential challenge. They know full well that if we do not meet that challenge our way of life, together with many of our lives, will be forfeit.
They know and they don't care.
They think they can promote an American defeat in Iraq and blame Bush for it, avoiding responsibility altogether. They even think that they can spend eight years working tirelessly to undermine America's position in the world and the electorate will reward them with the White House.
They may be right. If they are, however, we have even bigger problems than the threat of militant Islam. An electorate too stupid for self-government would be at the top of the list.
Politicians are not a courageous breed. They thrive by accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative. In war, however, we need mere politicians to morph into leaders who can rally us to make terrible sacrifices and do great things.
Bush deserves partial credit for being, by a wide margin, the best of a bad lot. But our political class has responded very poorly to the challenge of September 11.
We desperately need to do better.