- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

President Bush has apparently decided that he wants one more chance to win this war. Likely, he will get it, but there will be a price: The sole proprietor of Iraq policy starting tomorrow will be the president himself.

His other choices were essentially three. The first, one might call the “Democratic majority” option. It’s abundantly clear that lots of people who turned out to vote for Democrats in 2006 were doing so to express opposition to the Iraq war. They want the United States out sooner rather than later. And they don’t much care what the local consequences are. The whole thing was a mistake, in their view, and with all due apologies to Iraqis, who are no better off and possibly worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein, that’s their problem. No more Americans should die for a mistake.

The Democratic House and Senate owe their majorities to this sentiment, and their leaders know it. They will continue, in all likelihood, to advocate withdrawal and oppose anything else. The option for the Bush administration would have been to accommodate the election results and the new Democratic majority by organizing a withdrawal starting now. One can imagine a variety of possible fig leaves to drape over such a naked bug-out, for example blaming the Iraqis for their hopeless inability to work together. But bug-out it would be.

Such a course was a non-starter. I doubt the Democratic leadership will make a serious legislative play to force the president’s hand in this direction because it would then share responsibility for the ugly consequences of post-withdrawal Iraq. Indeed, given Mr. Bush’s opposition to this course of action, the Democratic leadership would be setting itself up for the blame for those consequences.

Second was the “Let It Ride” option. Do nothing different; stick to the plans devised by Donald Rumsfeld and commanders John Abizaid and George Casey: Stand down as the Iraqi military and security forces stand up. Do your best to mitigate the ethnic killing and cleansing while waiting for the violence to burn itself out, however long it takes, then try to put the political pieces back together as best you can.

The problem here is that, as the Iraq Study Group noted, the situation is indeed “grave and deteriorating.” Whatever it is we’re doing hasn’t been working if the deliverable is improved security for Iraqis. To stay the course would be to accept the deterioration as an insurmountable fact of life on the grounds that nothing can be done about it.

Call the third choice the “Wise Men” option. The Iraq Study Group report was the potential point of departure. If Mr. Bush had been inclined to do so, he could have hugged the ISG report to his bosom and received in return a certain amount of graybeard establishment buy-in for his policy, including from some Democrats. And, in truth, the ISG report had a substantial amount of flexibility built into its recommendations, including allowing for the possibility of a surge in U.S. troop strength. It’s not clear that embracing the report, at least rhetorically, would have precluded any of the military moves Mr. Bush is contemplating.

The problems with the “Wise Man” option are fourfold. First, the report just wasn’t convincing. It didn’t offer a policy so much as a posture (pro-“stability”) and a process (shuttle diplomacy for the region). On the merits, cynicism was the best spirit in which to approach it. Second, and contrary to the views of critics, this administration is not very good at cynicism, and a purely tactical embrace of the ISG would have been beyond its capacity for insincerity. Third, no one would have taken its embrace of the ISG seriously in the absence of a diplomatic initiative toward Syria and Iran, neither of which the administration believes would be useful. A diplomatic feint might work, but would run afoul of the first problem.

Finally, such an approach would preclude any further discussion of the possibility of victory. Instead, it would be seen, quite correctly, as acquiescence in the view that everyone needs to pitch in to clean up young George W.’s mess.

This, then, was the moment at which Mr. Bush would either give up in one of the ways above or make a last stand. Mr. Bush did indeed, at last, get the message that he needs to make changes. He has realized that those who were advising him did not have adequate answers. He has investigated his options and has replaced his defense secretary; overhauled his diplomacy with changes in top-level personnel at the Embassy in Iraq, at the State Department, and at the United Nations; and replaced his military commanders.

He won’t be in office long enough to do it again. What he unveils tomorrow is his final answer. He is the one who decided to offer it and who shaped it. If, by some chance, it succeeds, he will deserve the credit. If it fails, there will be no one else to blame.

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