- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

One thing about the Iraq war is for certain: our government and the American people are badly divided over war strategy. This sad state of affairs has left our troops twisting in a political wind that saps their morale and relegates them to facing a dangerous and uncertain future. It is a national disgrace. In my opinion, both the White House and Congress bear equal blame for this predicament. They have both taken a “my way or the highway” approach that makes almost impossible any attempt to formulate a collective consensus that best serves our goals in Iraq and the war against terrorism.

There is a way out of this mess and it will require both sides to find some common ground that allows the U.S. to continue full-funding of our forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future while requiring an eventual a drawdown that will reduce U.S. forces by at least half over the next 20 months … if not sooner.

After the next veto override vote, the president will have a very narrow window of opportunity to approach a negotiation with Congress from a position of strength. Even though he will win the first two rounds by Congress sustaining his veto, the funding impasse will still exist and, therefore, Mr. Bush needs to take the leadership role to show the American people he is determined to unify the nation around a common strategy.

The first step in this process is for both the White House and congressional leaders, including Republicans, to agree to negotiate without any preconditions. Heretofore, both sides have insisted on unalterable, mutually exclusive goals — troop withdrawal deadline vs. open-ended deployment — that have rendered any negotiations totally useless.

Hopefully, once engaged in earnest to forge a unified consensus, the following could serve as the basis for a potential compromise:

• President Bush agrees to a gradual drawdown in forces starting in March or April ‘08 with the goal to reduce U.S. forces by at least half at the end of the year and will insist, in the meantime, on the Iraqi government meeting certain, measurable benchmarks. In exchange, congressional Democrats give up pressing for an inflexible timetable to withdraw all troops and agree to support the current surge and any other requirements for troop funding for the remaining fiscal budget requests in Mr. Bush’s term.

• The White House does not give up that much because if the surge works and Iraq becomes more stabilized, the American public will demand a move to begin a drawdown in forces — and facts on the ground will justify going in this direction. If the surge does not result in any significant progress, Mr. Bush will have played his last card and there will be an even greater outcry for a phased withdrawal.

This is not a surrender, cut-and-run strategy because we will still end up with a sizable force in Iraq to continue training and equipping the Iraqi army. Whatever happens beyond 2008 will be up to the next president and Congress to decide. What is important is that we stop playing politics between now and next November to reassure our troops in Iraq we will no longer subject their safety and mission to partisan gamesmanship.

Both sides need to come to grips with fundamental realities. The White House cannot sustain an open-ended troop commitment that defies what the overwhelming majority of voters want nor can congressional Democrats set an irresponsible “surrender” date that ignores the dangerous consequences of totally abandoning Iraq. Moreover, we must let the Iraqis, al Qaeda, the Iranians and the entire world know that we have a united government and strategy.

Should Mr. Bush stake out a high ground negotiating position that accommodates these political realities, he can regain some momentum by putting the Democrats on the spot. If the Democrats refuse to compromise and dig in their heels, Mr. Bush looks presidential whereas his detractors will come across as partisan hacks putting politics above the interests of the American people and our troops in Iraq.

Given that the public opinion tide is running overwhelmingly against him, Mr. Bush really only has one credible option left: Rise above partisanship and demonstrate some flexibility to unite our government and the American people in forging a new direction in Iraq. In this case, compromise makes Mr. Bush stronger.

Gary L. Jarmin is a Republican strategist and president of a government affairs consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

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