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November 13, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Toward consensus on Iraq?

It would have had a better chance to succeed a year or more ago, but the convening of the Iraq Study Group offers hope of approaching a broad agreement on how to proceed in Iraq. The group's co-chairmen, James Baker (former secretary of state) and Lee Hamilton (former Democratic congressman from Indiana), are highly respected in foreign policy, and are not considered highly partisan. They expect to release a report with policy recommendations by the end of the year, but no one expects any brilliant solutions to our predicament. The purpose of the Study Group is to give various groups in this country a voice in setting a new policy direction, i.e., it's more about policy process than substance.

After a preliminary meeting with them this morning, President Bush says that his objective is to have an Iraqi government that can "sustain, govern and defend itself, and will serve as an ally in this war on terror." See Washington Post. That is indeed a proper objective, but such an outcome is only partly within our ability to bring about. It depends primarily upon the Iraqi leaders themselves. Likewise, Bush was correct to reject the suggestion of Sen. Carl Levin that we begin a phased withdrawal of troops -- just like in Vietnam. Any such exit should be discretional, not on a fixed timetable, so as to maximize our leverage vis-à-vis the government of Iraq.

What is particularly encouraging is the increased influence of foreign policy realists, and the corresponding diminution of the ideologically-driven neoconservatives. For whatever reason, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration fell prey to the temptation to pursue a messianic foreign policy with limitless global ambitions. Those of us who had hoped that Bush would heed the prudent counsel of Colin Powell were disappointed, time and again. Likewise, the influence on policy of Condoleeza Rice, who has strong realist credentials in academia, has been difficult to ascertain. Since her last trip to the Middle East, she has had a very low profile. I do give credit to Bush for earnest perseverance in waging war against our enemies, but he simply did not give adequate consideration to formulating a strategy with objectives tailored to our available resources. That is what realism is all about: achieving a balance in the pursuit of our national interests.

That is where the irony of Sen. John McCain's position stands out so starkly. Considered a moderate in domestic affairs, McCain is among the biggest hawks on Iraq, calling for a substantial increase in the number of troops there. I would agree if I thought such a commitment could be sustained, but after the Democrats take control of Congress in January, the President will be severely hamstrung. Perhaps we can still manage to turn the tables and regain the momentum in Iraq, easing tensions and restoring central government authority. But I think it is more likely that we will achieve only partial success, acquiescing in some kind of partition, so that the end result of the war would be something of a stalemate, as in Korea.

It is now clear that our armed forces are stretched to the limit in terms of material resources, and last week's election indicates quite clearly that we have reached the psychological limit as well. As I have repeatedly emphasized, this war against those in the Arab-Islamic who have sworn to destroy us is above all a matter of exerting national willpower. Since last Tuesday, that willpower has evidently diminished, though not on the catastrophic scale of the Spanish elections of March 2004. I wish it were not the case, but I see no other way to interpret it. Those patriotic Americans who still hold out hope for a decisive victory must remember that firepower and technology are no substitute for the willingness of Americans to put their lives on the line in defense of our interests and values. We should all refrain from casting aspersions on those who have different opinions in this matter. After all, we are a democratic nation, and we simply must stand united lest our enemies exploit our internal divisions.

We have to remember that, whatever happens in Iraq, the broader war against Arab-Islamic extremism will continue for several more years, and possibly decades. These will be trying times for our soldiers in Iraq, who may start wondering what they are fighting for unless clear, achievable military objectives are articulated for them. President Bush bears an enormous burden in conveying to them a more realistic set of goals. There is also an enormous task facing him on the home front: the President must take special care not to say anything that might inflame passions on either the strongly pro-war or the anti-war sides. Bush must try to persuade moderate anti-war people to ease up on their demands to bring the troops back home immediately, while trying to assuage the fears of pro-war people that scaling back our objectives does not mean we are running up the white flag. Trying to do both at the same time will be his greatest test yet as president.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 13 Nov 2006, 11: 45 PM

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