Sandra Day O’Connor is no hothead. The former Supreme Court justice is dispassionate, thoughtful and cautious.
As one of the five Republicans on the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which has issued what may be the most important report in America this year, O’Connor’s words should be heard.
After interviews with 200 people, she said she was stunned to find the situation in Iraq far more dire than she had thought.
President Bush is wrong. America is not winning the war in Iraq, she and her co-panelists decided. And it already may be too late to avoid total chaos in Iraq and the Middle East. But she also argues that there is a last chance — to try new diplomatic avenues, especially with Iran and Syria and more broadly throughout the Middle East, and to set a goal for extricating most of the U.S. combat brigades by the end of 2008.
But there is little time. Iraq is being consumed by sectarian violence and may still break apart. Some think we have days or weeks, not months or years to come up with a new strategy.
O’Connor mused on how "remarkable" it is that five Republicans and five Democrats in highly polarized Washington arrived at 79 unanimous recommendations about Iraq. She believes Iraq’s fate will be decided by whether we, the American people, can forget our animosities and come together around a consensus.
Many think what happens now is up to Bush and whether he can say he was wrong. But O’Connor has a point. Despite the election results, if we don’t realize how quickly the situation in Iraq is deteriorating, little will change.
(Note: I spent three years writing a book about O’Connor and her role on the Supreme Court. I judged her to be a woman of admirable common sense. I decided that a panel that included her would be civil and credible.)
O’Connor insisted the Iraq report emphasize "the way forward." The panel does not describe how the Bush administration pushed us into a war in Iraq that had nothing to do with al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction.
It is too late to undo the mess we made in Iraq, but O’Connor and her colleagues are right that there is much that we can do to help clean it up if we have the national will. They said there are 79 ways, in fact, to try to avoid total failure in Iraq.
White House aides say Bush will figure out new options for Iraq, probably by month’s end. He may even do a U-turn and stop talking about "victory" in Iraq. He may stop accusing those who argue America can’t maintain a major military presence in Iraq for 10 more years of "cutting and running."
But his press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was disheartening. Bush sounded at times incoherent, inappropriately jokey, petulant and yet still, overall, stubborn. This is a man who believes God ordained him to be president and that launching the war in Iraq was a noble act even though it has turned out to be a disaster.
The slide into daily worsening violence (civil war) in Iraq, said Bush, is "unsettling." That’s all it is?! History will demand why free nations didn’t keep the peace, he said, although he started a preemptive war to get rid of Saddam Hussein (while dozens of other repressive dictators remain in office with impunity).
He said that peace for us will come from helping "millions of moms and dads across the Middle East" build democracies. But at what cost in American lives and loss of respect for the United States, especially if those societies are still afraid of democracy?
Even now, with the jaws of defeat closing around him, Bush relies on jingoism to argue that an exhausted U.S. military using 150,000 able but overworked troops can build a stable Iraq when the Iraqis’ own government is pathetically weak and cowed by rivalries.
Bush has lost the respect of 60 percent of Americans but holds the other 40 percent by inflammatory words to assure them that going to war in Iraq was not a mistake and that once there his administration did not make a bad situation worse.
The Iraq Study Group’s report is a moderate approach that will upset those at either extreme — the Bushes willing to continue the dying and maiming for a lost cause and the John Murthas who want to pull out no matter the chaos and misery left behind.
But the middle is where most Americans are. They accept that going to war in Iraq was a horrible mistake. But they also want to try salvaging something out of four years of war to give Iraq a chance and regain the international respect we had.
Mr. Bush, please listen to Justice O’Connor.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.