Philadelphia Inquire: Getting Out of Iraq
Philadelphia Inquirer
July 15, 2007

President Bush said last week he would retire from the Oval Office at the end of his term knowing that he "will be able to look in the mirror and say I made decisions based on principle, not politics."

That may make him feel better about his administration's conduct of the U.S. operation in Iraq.

It is of little comfort to many Iraqis and Americans, who are increasingly distraught after more than four years of blood spilled, money spent and goodwill lost.

Bush's principles are blocking him from changing his Iraq policy sufficiently to get U.S. troops home as quickly and responsibly as possible. Members of Congress need to be the grown-ups in the room.

U.S. senators and representatives should craft and unite behind a plan that rejects Bush's unjustified stay-the-course approach, while injecting realism into fond and reckless dreams of a risk-free withdrawal.

Numerous proposals on Iraq are being discussed on Capitol Hill. The best result would rely on the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Chief among them is planning to remove most U.S. troops from heavy combat in 2008. But that withdrawal needs to be done carefully, with adequate troop protection as military columns head out of the country. Withdrawal will be a very dangerous part of the mission.

Some rapid-response and special-operations units should remain to pursue al-Qaeda in Iraq and try to protect Iraq's borders against more terrorist infiltration.

The best proposal would leave the details of military tactics up to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, while setting overall objectives.

It would attract the support of a bipartisan majority - making it hard for Bush to ignore. That majority would be unafraid to consider the concerns of both Democrats and Republicans, without pandering to party bases.

And it would let the Iraqi government know that it must work more assiduously and bravely on its political challenges, or face the prospect of an imploding Iraq without American troops as a buffer.

President Bush must be living in a time warp, judging by his remarks last week. It's a lovely thought on which he dwells: Decency and democracy should triumph over terrorism and tyrants. Should, but may not if you make too many mistakes.

And his team has made plenty in Iraq - from too few boots on the ground, to the lack of post-war planning, to dismissing the importance of understanding Iraqi people and cultures.

Bush's report on whether Iraqi leaders have met political and military benchmarks squinted to see the glass as half full. In fact, the glass is shattered.

Iraqis made satisfactory progress, according to the Bush team, in eight of 18 areas.

That's not a good score. But the truth is even worse. Just look at one of the "satisfactory" areas: forming a constitutional review committee to resolve sensitive issues including defining the power of regions vs. the central government.

A committee has been formed, but the main Sunni party has withdrawn from the parliament. The panel is far from accomplishing its task.

The unhappy reality is that Iraq's leaders have performed dismally on the benchmarks most critical to stabilizing Iraq, such as a plan to share oil revenues among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Bush also continued to fear-monger last week by again blurring the lines between the terrorists who are fomenting civil war in Iraq, and the al-Qaeda that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The terrorist network known, confusingly, as "al-Qaeda in Iraq" is a product of the U.S. invasion, not a justification for it.

The president seems unable to acknowledge that military power alone cannot impose democracy on a violent land unready for it. Miracles can happen. But the turmoil in Iraq today leaves one conclusion:

Bush has botched Iraq.

He cannot endlessly leave American soldiers to die fighting for impossible objectives. If he cannot admit that, Congress must force him to face reality.

For Congress to do that, Democratic leaders will have to do more than placate their loudest antiwar voices. Senate President Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) can't join the White House in disconnecting from reality. They shouldn't ignore the risks of a haphazard pullout.

There is a great and grave possibility that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds will not play nice once they see the backs of American tanks. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others in the neighborhood could stoke the violence still more. A wider conflagration could draw America back to the region.

Wise heads in Washington are working to craft better alternatives than the two politicized ones on offer: endless commitment vs. hasty withdrawal.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D., Colo.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) have cosponsored a bill that would enshrine the Iraq Study Group's recommendations. Since these were issued at the beginning of the year, a review should be done to see which ones can still be achieved.

On Friday, respected Republican Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and John W. Warner of Virginia proposed that President Bush seek new congressional authorization - with a new rationale - for the war in Iraq. Their bill also asks him to give Congress a contingency plan for Iraq by Oct. 16.

A battle of all-or-nothing ideas has helped to mire American politics in a quagmire on Iraq. Wise leadership and nuanced thinking might not make for exciting sound bites, but they will make for sound policy on the most important issue of our day.

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