Now that the campaign speeches are over and the last negative ad nausea has been squeezed out of the tube, we will finally get to hear about what our leaders are really going to do to solve or at least resolve the crisis that is killing our best and bravest and crippling our country.
First we will hear from two of America’s most eminent and respected public figures. Then we will hear from our president. Perhaps.
In a few weeks we will finally get the details of an alternative strategy for the Iraq war that is the result of a bipartisan study headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who chaired the House Intelligence Committee and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission (and as readers will remember, has long been this column’s choice for secretary of state).
Now, you might be thinking that it is too bad we didn’t get the Baker-Hamilton alternative weeks ago so that it could have been the basis of a real national debate during the fall campaign. You are, of course, right. In a more perfect union, that is precisely how it would have happened. But there would also have been a downside: The candidates we have just endured would have been unable to resist the temptation to demagogue even the most thoughtful Baker-Hamilton plan, twisting it, the better to attack and smear, distort and divide.
At the very time when our great national need is to unite behind a policy that can, at the best, help bring peace to Iraq in time to give democracy a chance there. Or, if that cannot be done, it could at least get U.S. forces out of the impossible position they are in today _ trapped in the middle of a most uncivil civil war that they cannot halt and cannot escape.
The most sensible of alternative Iraq strategies that have been discussed in think tanks and in at least some of the more remote rings of the Pentagon are variations of the one proposed many months ago by a former top Reagan defense department official, Lawrence Korb, now at the Center for American Progress, one of Washington’s most influential think tanks. Korb has proposed a phased withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, leaving a smaller residual force based elsewhere in the region. In an Oct. 23 debate at the Council on Foreign Relations, Korb said that this phased withdrawal would be completed 58 months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq _ which means that his plan can hardly be attacked as “cut-and-run.” Not even by those who are partial to that sort of baseless broadside on the political theory that the best defense is the most offensive.
Which brings us to President Bush. The unveiling of the Baker-Hamilton alternative strategy will bring the Bush presidency to that long awaited fork in the road. Being like baseball’s Yogi in so many ways, President Bush may be tempted to spoon-feed us by simply saying that when he gets to the fork in the road, he, too, will take it. After all, he has stopped his chanting mantra he will “Stay the Course.”
But while he may be convincing himself that _ despite his pubic praise for Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld _ it is time to gently Stray the Course. Of course, President Bush would never “cut-and-run” _ but deep down, there must be some of his daddy’s genes that are whispering to him that now is the time to Trim-and-Tiptoe.
So we await the Baker-Hamilton alternative because we know it will mean that Bush can no longer continue his rope-a-dope on Iraq. Sooner or later, he will have to tell us what he thinks of whatever it is that Baker-Hamilton make public. Or tell us what he will do instead of following the Baker-Hamilton proposal.
Or, if the president persists in telling us nothing more than he has so far, he will really be telling us what most Americans already think: That he doesn’t have a clue about what to do to get America out of the war he got us into.
America desperately wants its president to succeed. Nobody wants a president who is The Undecider.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)