America's mission in Iraq, a profoundly moral mission, is not dead yet. For President Bush to keep it alive, however, he must identify a masterstroke to change the political equation here in the U.S.A.
Right now, even as the controversial troop surge is achieving notable successes in both the Baghdad area and in Anbar province (see here, here, here, and here for examples), support in Washington for the surge is bleeding away with every new statement by Republican senators such as Richard Lugar and Pete Domenici. Every reputable poll shows that the American public has had more than enough, that it does not see Iraq as either winnable or even worth winning, and that it blames Bush for what it sees as an expanding fiasco.
Against these realities, the same old arguments and the same old pleas to "give the surge a chance" will accomplish nothing. The president must find a way, soon, to convince the public that it is both possible and worthwhile to secure the peace in a godforsaken country halfway around the planet. Otherwise, what ensnared the president on immigration reform could befall him on the war: Public opinion could force Congress to hand Bush a monumental defeat, no matter how hard his administration fights for his position.
The defeat could come, far more easily than the administration believes, in the form of a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander requiring a major troop withdrawal no later than next March. Certainly, Bush could veto the bill and probably sustain the veto in the House -- but at what political cost? There comes a time when obvious weakness at home leads to weakness abroad, which causes catastrophic damage to the national interest.
All of which begs the question: What masterstroke? What options exist, anywhere in the realm of the possible?
The first approach would be to try changing the terms of debate by new communications strategies and tactics. Somehow, some way, create a new narrative. Pull in outside communications advisors, perhaps, and figure out a way to tell the stories of this war's heroes -- its Audie Murphys, its Sergeant Yorks, its Andrew Jacksons or (to bolster the idea that we still do have allies) even its Lafayettes. Trumpet the successes in Iraq -- the hospitals built, the schools opened, the new businesses started -- and explain how we Americans might benefit from a friendly and more prosperous Iraq. (It's also a good idea always to provide photos and footage of us doing good over there. This helps balance the ugly images that normally emerge from Iraq.)
Enlist somebody respected to make the case for staying the course. Find some retired Democratic senators, perhaps -- Sam Nunn and Bob Kerrey, if they will do it -- or some universally admired retired athletes such as Arnold Palmer or Lance Armstrong, and have them make the case for finishing the job. (Not that those people mentioned above necessarily agree; but those are the types of people who might be able to rally public support.) Remind people how dethroning Saddam Hussein brought Libya's Moammar Qaddafi to heel. Lay out, in cause-and-effect terms, the alternative scenarios for success in Iraq versus failure there. Or something. Do something, anything, creative to make the case in a new, powerful way.
A second approach would be actually to do something dramatic. A brand-new diplomatic offensive against Iran, for instance. Find a way to enlist Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or other nations of the region who worry about Iranian hegemony, in an embargo or some other strong measure against Iran -- backed, if necessary, by a credible threat of military force, such as precision strikes on support facilities for Iranian nuclear plants. For that matter, "black ops" to destabilize the Iranian regime would complement a diplomatic offense quite well. Why Iran? Because Iran is arming and training terrorists in Iraq, as well as deploying or sponsoring terrorists who are radicalizing and destabilizing the whole region. Because the Iranian public already has been rioting against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and because it is clear that at least a very substantial minority of the Iranian public (especially its young adults) are open to, indeed enthusiastic about, Western culture and ideals. And because any triumph in the Middle East will help buy credibility here at home for the Bush administration, and thus buy time for the surge's successes to become ever more clear.
A third approach would be to create new benchmarks for success in Iraq. In other words, redefine the intermediate goals of the surge to highlight achievements that are well on the way to being realized
Fourth, the administration might work to "flip" noted skeptics over to the administration's position. What if some careful nurturing could convince James Baker and Lee Hamilton of the Iraq Study Group that it is worth their while to embrace the surge publicly in all its particulars? What if a prominent newspaper's editorial board could be convinced to change its tune based on evidence from the war zone?
There must be a way, somehow, to shake up the political situation here in the United States so as to buy the time necessary for military successes to become apparent. Again, that's the whole idea: to buy time, politically, in order for the surge to work.
What the United States is doing in Iraq is moral. We deposed a vicious dictator who annually killed tens of thousands of his own people while threatening his neighbors and plotting to murder millions with weapons of mass death. We are trying to create a Middle Eastern vanguard of freedom and human rights. We are protecting American strategic interests -- which, the American people must be reminded, are right and just and good because the United States itself is right and just and good.
And by fighting terrorists in Iraq, if we do so successfully, we send a message that terrorism itself is a province of losers, a bad bet, a futile cause.
We can accomplish our moral goals in Iraq only if we victoriously secure the peace -- and only the surge can secure that peace, and it can do so only if given time for its demonstrable early successes both to take root and grow.
Past mistakes in fighting this war are immaterial to the task ahead. President Bush rightly has identified the central struggle of our time, and he now has in place the strategy, the surge, that actually has a chance to achieve victory in the main front of that struggle. But it will take a political surge at home, secured through some diplomatic or communications jujitsu, to keep the surge alive in an Iraq teetering on the edge between chaos, if it fails, and the achievable dream of ordered liberty.
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