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The drawdown of troops in Iraq without leaving the country and the region in absolute chaos needs one elusive ingredient to succeed — bipartisanship. Without some political detente between Republicans and Democrats and the White House and Congress, the insurgents, terrorists and warring political factions will continue to be emboldened.
At least that’s the consensus of the foreign-policy and military analysts who make a living in the arcane world of international politics by sucking long-range solutions out of their thumbs. In this case, they are probably right, seeing what the lack of civility and extreme partisanship have produced on the domestic front. Extending the presidential election stumping to more than two years has exacerbated divisiveness even on issues like the war that cry out for accommodation.
What we are dealing with in this case is a stubborn Republican president and equally determined Democratic congressional leaders who seem unable to find common political ground for solving nearly any problem. In the case of Iraq, it would be wrong to impugn their sincerity, just their willingness to talk rationally to one another or to speak with one voice.
The president’s determination, as seen in his most recent speech to the nation, appears unflagging despite the continued violence. He reaffirmed his belief that the surge in troop commitment is working and that a sudden shift or timetable for withdrawal would promote the interests of Iran, al Qaeda and others unfriendly to the United States. He may be in denial about his own contributions to that problem and about the prospects that democracy will ever really take root there given the theocratic influences, but there is little doubt that he believes what he says.
He has moved somewhat away from the unrealities and misconceptions on which his policy rested by agreeing that the U.S. troop withdrawal could begin and expand if the differing religious factions continue to make progress. While Bush talked about a limited drawdown of 5,700 troops to between 130,000 and 140,000 by summer as proposed by Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it is highly possible that only 100,000 U.S. forces would be there by the end of next year.
The president obviously understands now, if he didn’t earlier, that victory has to come through the political process and not the military one. The pressure he has been putting on the Iraqi government and religious leaders reflects that understanding.
Petraeus has predicted it could take 10 years before the U.S. military mission is completed.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are determined to bring the occupation to an end much sooner, a position they believe matches the desire of a solid majority of Americans. At the same time, they are unwilling to risk the political liabilities of being accused of endangering American troops by denying them support. For that reason, most of the schemes for forcing the administration into early withdrawal are hollow threats without the votes in the Senate to break a filibuster. But lawmakers’ unwillingness to compromise is just as firm as the White House’s on the issue of a timetable.
So what we have here, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, is a failure to communicate, with Bush staking out a hard-line position he believes will be historically correct and an opposition that sees little political gain in compromise. What might bring the troops home sooner is a politically unified American government as well as the one in Iraq. If all those from Capitol Hill to the White House entrusted to protect the nation’s welfare could find common ground, those trying to thwart our aims might get the message.
Our reigning foreign-policy experts, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski agree that the poisonous atmosphere that permeates Washington and seeps into every corner of our national debate is counterproductive to American interests. There has to be a middle road somewhere, but it can’t be reached by the recriminations and vicious name-calling that seem to be the main elements of any debate on Iraq.
The comparisons to Vietnam are legitimate. But there is a major difference: The stakes, which we thought were so high then, are nothing compared to those in this affair. Political cooperation is not only necessary here, it is imperative. Are you listening, Mr. President and Madam Speaker? Probably not.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)