It's getting harder to distinguish between newsies such as Tim Russert and would-be presidents such as Newt Gingrich. Both have made it unmistakably clear that their number one goal is to label America's invasion of Iraq a failure. It's no surprise to hear Tim Russert press National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, as he did yesterday, to say that the president should admit the Iraq invasion was a mistake. The media believes it won the election for the Democrats and expects to be repaid by a repudiation of the war by the new Congress. But what is Newt's excuse? Why has James Baker's about-to-report "study group" reached consensus on a phased withdrawal from Iraq and negotiations with Iran and Syria without apparently even considering how to win the war?
In a New Hampshire speech last week, trolling for support in the 2008 presidential primary, Gingrich said that the only way the president can lead this nation forward is to begin by admitting failure in Iraq. According to a Boston Globe report, Gingrich said we've gone beyond the first two stages in Iraq: the removal of Saddam and the democracy-building stage. And, he asked, "If the military, White House, and State Department continue to avoid the word 'failure,' how can you bring about a third stage?" Does he agree with the Baker-Hamilton group (and Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter) that Iran and Syria can have a beneficial influence on the future of Iraq?
Newt Gingrich wants to be president of the United States. A wartime president -- which, like it or not, is what President Bush's successor will be -- has to lead not only the nation but the world. The threat of Islamic fascism isn't going to be defeated before January 2009. So why is Gingrich proving that he can never be a wartime president by saying that the only path forward for the Bush administration is to admit failure in Iraq? Is Gingrich ignorant of the effect that admission would have on the global war, or is he so crass a politician that he cares about nothing other than the perceived political advantage he can gain by saying we've been defeated in Iraq?
This week, the media's payoff on Iraq will begin in the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearings on Robert Gates to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Gates resigned from the Baker-Hamilton group soon after his nomination to the top defense job, but his participation in that group -- and his long-time connection to the Bush 41 crowd of which Baker was the self-proclaimed star -- mean his hearings will be focused on how he will guide the president into the graceful exit from Iraq the president has said wouldn't happen. It's a faint hope, but if there is a Republican left on the committee, he might use his time to greater benefit by asking Gates about the Rumsfeld memo on the way ahead.
The latest secret document published by the New York Times is a memo written by Secretary Rumsfeld and sent to the president the day before the November election. Apparently written before his decision to resign, Rumsfeld demonstrated -- redundantly -- that he understands this war and how it must be fought to win it, not lose it. On the list of Republicans eager for defeat you won't find Rumsfeld's name.
More than the rest of us, Rumsfeld has reason for impatience with the Iraqis, especially the politicians who are unwilling or unable to reach consensus on the means to unify their government and secure their nation against Iranian and Syrian aggression. He made several points. Among them:
* Publicly announce a set of benchmarks agreed to by the Iraqi Government and the US -- political, economic and security goals -- to chart a path ahead for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people....
* Retain high-end SOF (special operations forces) capability and support structure to target al-Qaeda, death squads, and Iranians in Iraq, while drawing down all other Coalition forces, except those necessary to provide certain key enablers for the [Iraqi Security Forces]....
* Position substantial U.S. forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and, importantly, reduce Iranian influence on the Iraqi Government....
* [End] reconstruction assistance in areas where there is violence....
* Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not "lose."
"Not 'lose'" is the key term, and only the president and Secretary Rumsfeld seem to understand the need to win. There is a faint hope that at least a few members of the Senate Armed Services Committee understand that we have to win, not just in Iraq but in the wider global war against Islamofascism.
Those few are Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John Ensign of Nevada and John Thune of South Dakota. Both Sen. McCain, who is running for president, and Sen. Graham who is running to please John McCain, will predictably spend their time questioning Gates about the Fabulous Baker Boys' report, and how to best engineer a regional peace conference by which we can sell the future of Iraq to Iran and Syria as the price for a peaceful withdrawal from Iraq. But perhaps Pat Roberts or Jeff Sessions or John Cornyn will ask what needs to be asked. Such as:
* Mr. Gates, how would you advise the president to win the wider war?
* Do you disagree with any of the points in Secretary Rumsfeld's memo, and if so why?
* Do you believe that Iran or Syria would possibly act to benefit a democratic Iraq? What price would you pay -- diplomatically or otherwise -- for their beneficial action?
* Do you agree with Newt Gingrich that the best way for the president to lead the nation and the world is to admit we have failed in Iraq?
* How will you ensure that, when the president's term ends, we will be on the path to victory and not defeat?
Robert Gates is, by all reports, the right man to succeed Rumsfeld and probably deserves the benefit of our support. But he needs to be tested first, and in his answers to those questions we can best judge if he can remake George W. Bush into the war president he must be for the next two years.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and, with Edward Timperlake, Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (Regnery, 2006).