- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

“Victory means exit strategy,” a critic of the president said, “and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is.”

That presidential critic was not some left-liberal Democrat. It was then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 1999 talking about President Clinton’s war in Bosnia. Funny how time has a way of making politics and politicians flip-flop.

I’m sure Mr. Bush is thinking hard about an honorable exit strategy for the U.S. in Iraq. But he isn’t sharing it with the rest of us. If anything is making more sense at this point, it’s the George Aiken option: Declare victory and come home.

That’s what the late Vermont Republican Sen. Aiken suggested to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon as Americans sank deeper into Vietnam’s quagmire.

But Mr. Bush, in recent speeches to pump up his sagging approval ratings, gives us bromides, like, “We’re going to stay until we get the job done,” which also begs the questions: What is “the job”? and What is “done”?



In a recent Newsweek poll that showed 61 percent disapproval for Mr. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, only 26 percent agreed with his wish to keep American troops there for “as long as it takes.” If not, how long?

The question, then, is not whether to leave but when and how. Leaving too soon would be dishonorably abandon our good-faith commitment to the Iraqi people. But staying too long could actually make matters worse.

A new reality seems to be sinking in among all but the president’s most devoted followers: Our mission has changed. Can we make it better? Or have we done about all we can? After spending $300 billion and losing more than 1,850 American soldiers, among thousands of other deaths, has the American presence become an impediment to the process it is trying to shepherd?

Mr. Bush’s recent speeches inaccurately cast the war as an us-versus-them battle with terrorists. In fact, the U.S. increasingly looks like an outside force caught in the cross-fire of a developing civil war between multiple Iraqi factions, principally emerging out of the old Ba’ath Party and ethnic and sectarian factions of Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims.

Everyone agrees Iraqis need to figure out their own future, for better or worse. But our experience suggests our well-intentioned efforts to keep Iraq united and give equal importance to the interests of Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites and the Kurds actually has encouraged those factions to make bigger demands on us and the nation-building process.

“If Iraq in August 2005 qualifies as the political equivalent of a clapped-out, self-abusing dependent,” Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor and another Vietnam veteran, recently wrote, “then the Bush administration ought to be recognized as an enabler.”

Mr. Bush refuses to announce a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, but his administration imposed a timetable on Iraqis, pushing them to set up a new constitutional government and security forces and, one hopes, accelerating the day when Americans can begin withdrawing troops.

Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, is the first senator to call for a specific pullout deadline, defying the Democratic leadership. His date, Dec. 31, 2006, for all our troops to be out of Iraq is only a “target,” not a “deadline,” he noted, and can be pushed back if circumstances require.

But at least it would pressure the Iraqis to work out their disputes and give Americans an achievable exit strategy more specific than any the president has offered.

But, whether Team Bush or Congress goes for a Feingold-style timetable, the administration faces a very real timetable in terms of next year’s midterm elections and, two years later, the next presidential campaign.

Nervousness among incumbent congressmen of both parties is one reason Mr. Bush has taken to the road in recent days, if only to resell the war with warmed-over bromides. To many Americans, the Aiken strategy looks better every day.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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