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Is Bush Seeking a “Decent Interval”?

It is no small irony that the neocons who denounced this magazine as “isolationist” when we argued against invading and occupying Iraq have left America more

isolated than ever before in its history.

We are virtually friendless in Baghdad. Our NATO allies, Brits and Poles excepted, have left us to stew in our own juice. Russia will not help. Japan will not help. The president’s UN address, sandwiched as it was between speeches by Kofi Annan and Jacques Chirac, earned perfunctory applause, while they received ovations.

Were it not for our contributions that subsidize the salaries, expense accounts, and pensions of UN employees, America would be as isolated in the “international community” as Ariel Sharon.

Congressional Democrats and their national candidates have begun to scourge the president for Iraq and will extract a pound of flesh before granting his request for $20 billion to rebuild it.

Why are they doing this? First, because voters do not want to spend billions rebuilding Iraq when our states are cutting services and raising taxes. Second, because Democrats are full of bitterness toward President Bush for stampeding them into voting for a war in which they never truly believed. Ashamed of their own cowardice, they intend to punish him for having “misled” them.

Yet, how do they answer this question: if Senators Kennedy and Byrd and Representative Kucinich and Governor Dean could stand up to the heat and say no to war in October 2002, why couldn’t you?

The isolation of America, brought on by Bush’s succumbing to the whispers of neocon tempters about Churchillian immortality has narrowed his choices now to the same three that were left to LBJ and Nixon, once we had committed ourselves to Vietnam.

He can opt for the Aiken Solution, “Declare victory and get out.” He can pursue his “Bring ’em on!” policy and fight the Iraqi guerrillas into a second term. Or he can escalate, attacking what the neocons call the “terror masters” in their privileged sanctuaries: Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Each option entails great risks.

If he follows the mood and mindset of his countrymen and pulls U.S. troops out too rapidly, he risks a collapse into chaos and civil war, which could leave Iraq a haven of terrorists that it never was under Saddam and invite intervention by Turkey or Iran.

If he commits to winning the war and building a democracy, no matter the cost in blood and money, he imperils his presidency. For America never signed on for a postwar war. Moreover, Bush risks ultimate defeat. For there is no sign of a slackening of interest among the Islamic young for a jihad to drive the Americans from Iraq.

What of the third option: escalate and expand the war? If the president intends to pacify the Sunni Triangle and seal the roads to Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, he will need far more than the 130,000 U.S. troops currently in country. A U.S. war on Syria would also inflame the Arab world and be supported by no nation save Israel. And what would the overthrow of President Assad’s regime accomplish, other than to give us 17 million sullen Syrian adoptees to go with our 50 million Iraqis and Afghans, the cost of whose day care is constantly rising?

Faced with the three options, each of which entails risks, the president appears to have decided—not to decide.

While understandable, this does not solve his problem, which is this: his present policy is unsustainable. Public support is declining, congressional support is declining, and his poll ratings are declining. If the president intends to fight this war to victory, he must begin to speak and act like a war leader, demanding sacrifices of us all, telling us how and when we can look forward to a triumphal end to the conflict. This President Bush has conspicuously failed to do.

Indeed, his actions—going back, hat in hand, to a UN he called “irrelevant” to ask for help in reconstituting Iraq, going to allies he and Rumsfeld dismissed as “Old Europe” to ask for troops, telling the nation we will transfer power to Iraqis as soon as possible—all point to the Nixonian solution of Iraqization and withdrawal. Back out of the bar with both guns blazing.

In Kevin Costner’s “Thirteen Days” about the Cuban missile crisis, Gen. Curtis LeMay says to JFK, as word comes the missiles are going operational, “Mr. President, you’ve got a problem.”

“No, General,” Kennedy retorts, “We have a problem.”

The president’s problem in Iraq is the result of an unnecessary war. But it is our problem now. Solution: admit the mistake, turn around, get out with all deliberate speed. We liberated Iraq from Saddam, but the future of Iraq is for them to decide, not us.

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