- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We Americans, despite our current grumblings, are fundamentally an optimistic people. Our optimism has helped us achieve great things. But it can also be a problem.

There is an assumption in public life that every problem has an optimum solution, all gain and no pain. Much political debate takes the form of yelling that everything would be just fine if the other side weren’t so stupid it failed to see the perfectly obvious policy.

The debate over Iraq has often been based on this assumption. The Bush administration has been blasted for dissolving the Iraqi army (actually, allowing it to disperse), which left it harder to maintain order. But maintaining Ba’athist officers in place would have produced much oppression and left weapons in the hands of many determined enemies. There was no optimum solution here — there were serious downsides to either policy.

A superficial view of our history buttresses the assumption there’s always an optimum policy. In crises, we seem always to have found great leaders — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. In war, we have always surged through to victory. Our economy has grown so bounteously we take its miraculous performance for granted.

But this line of thought leaves out some inconvenient facts. We’ve had some pretty awful leaders — the politicians of the 1850s who led us toward civil war, Woodrow Wilson after his incapacitation, which prevented his securing ratification of the Versailles Treaty. We haven’t won all our wars: the War of 1812 and Korea were ties and Vietnam ultimately a loss. Our economy has had some pretty rough patches, caused by what are now recognized as major policy mistakes — the Depression of the 1930s, and the stagflation of the 1970s.

And sometimes we have faced tragic choices. Just 65 years ago, right after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill spent Christmastime at the White House conferring with Franklin Roosevelt. Optimum solutions were not in sight. The American fleet was still smoldering, the Japanese were streaming into the Philippines and headed into Malaya (with its rubber) and Singapore. Nazi troops were on the outskirts of Moscow (you can see the monument marking their farthest advance on the highway in from the airport today), and U.S. military leaders all believed the Soviets would be defeated within months.

But Churchill and Roosevelt were determined to move forward, even (as in the North Africa invasion of November 1942) against the advice of their military leaders. And they both without hesitation chose to support the Soviets, even though they were well aware of the evil of Stalin’s regime — and understood that in destroying Adolf Hitler they risked Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe.

We forget now, but there was opposition to Roosevelt’s decision to go after Hitler first (hadn’t we been attacked by the Japanese, not the Germans?) and to support Stalin (an indubitably evil leader). And there were many times — not just moments, but agonizingly long months — when victory seemed impossible. Our military strategy and tactics were far from perfect. And the Soviets did gobble up Eastern Europe, and North Korea too. But the less-than-optimum choices Roosevelt and Churchill made, in retrospect and on balance, look preferable to any alternatives.

George W. Bush now faces an array of less-than-optimum choices on Iraq. On the campaign trail and on Sunday interview shows, many Democrats and a few Republicans for months blithely talked of withdrawal. But as they have faced the probable consequences, spelled out by among others the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the downside risks seem ominous.

Nor does the ISG’s recommendation that we negotiate with Iran and Syria look at all promising, given the recent behavior of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Debate continues on military tactics. Should we embed more trainers in Iraqi units? Should we surge some 35,000 or so troops in to pacify Baghdad? The success of military tactics, as Churchill and Roosevelt knew, is never certain. But the challenges before us are surely not as daunting as assaulting Hitler’s Fortress Europe and reclaiming the Pacific from Japan.

Mr. Bush has stressed he has followed his military leaders’ advice. But he needs to do more. He needs to engage now with his new defense secretary and his military leaders, in the aggressive and detailed way Churchill and Roosevelt did, probing and critiquing their proposals, eliciting from them plans that can reduce the sectarian violence in Baghdad and the Ba’athist and al Qaeda attacks there and in Anbar Province to tolerable levels. Even over Christmas, as Churchill and Roosevelt did.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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