George W. Bush delivered his farewell address on Thursday evening — handing the baton, and probably the next election, to the Democrats.
Why do I say that? Because in his speech to the nation the president basically said that on the most important, indeed only, legacy issue left in his presidency, Iraq, there would be no change in policy — that a substantial number of U.S. troops would remain in Iraq “beyond my presidency.” Therefore, it will be up to his successor to end the war he started.
“In one fell swoop George Bush abdicated to Petraeus, Maliki and the Democrats,” said David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, referring to Gen. David Petraeus and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. “Bush left it to Petraeus to handle the war, Maliki to handle our timetable and therefore our checkbook, and the Democrats to ultimately figure out how to end this.”
The sad thing for the American people is that we have no commander in chief anymore, framing our real situation and options. The president’s description on Thursday of the stakes in Iraq was delusional. An Iraqi ally fighting for “freedom” against “extremists”? There are extremists in the Iraqi government, army and police. There is a civil war on top of tribal, neighborhood and jihadist wars, fueled not by a single Iraqi quest for freedom, but by differing quests for “justice,” revenge and, yes, democracy. The only possible self-sustaining outcome in the near term is some form of radical federalism.
We also do not have a commander in chief weighing the costs of staying in Iraq indefinitely against America’s other interests at home and abroad. When General Petraeus honestly averred that he could not say whether pursuing the surge in Iraq would make America safer, he underscored how much the war there has become disconnected from every conceivable worthy goal — democratization of Iraq or spreading progressive governance in the Arab-Muslim world — and is now just about itself and abstractions of “winning” or “not failing.”
That is why I thought the most relevant comments from the Petraeus hearings last week were those offered by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Ike Skelton, when he said at the outset:
“We must begin by considering the overall security of this nation. It’s our responsibility here in Congress under the Constitution to ensure that the United States military can deter and if needed prevail anywhere our interests are threatened. Iraq is an important piece of the overall equation, but it is only a piece. There are very real trade-offs when you send 160,000 of our men and women in uniform to Iraq. Those troops in Iraq are not available for other missions.”
While Mr. Bush’s tacit resignation last week greatly increases the odds of a Democratic victory in 2008, there are several wild cards that could change things: a miraculous turnaround in Iraq (unlikely, but you can always hope), a terrorist attack in America, a coup in Pakistan that puts loose nukes in the hands of Islamist radicals, or a recession induced by the meltdown in the U.S. mortgage market, which forces a stark choice between bailing out Baghdad or Chicago.
The first three, for sure, could propel the right Republican candidate right back into the thick of things — especially if the Democrats have not positioned themselves with a credible approach to Iraq and the wider national security issues facing the country.
There is an opportunity now for Democrats, and Americans will be listening — but they need to articulate a concrete endgame policy, and it would have to include at least three components:
First, a detailed blueprint with a fixed withdrawal date tied to a negotiation with Iraqi factions on a federal solution tied to a military redeployment plan to contain the inevitable spillover from Iraq.
Second, a commitment by the next president to impose a stiff tariff on all imported crude oil, to make sure we become less dependent on what is sure to be a more unstable Middle East as we leave Iraq. And third, a plan to deal with the broader terrorist challenge. Set a date. Set a price. That will get people’s attention.
Democratic candidates have been talking about health care and other important issues, but the overriding foreign policy message that still comes across from them to many Americans, argues Mr. Rothkopf, is that Democrats are simply “anti-Bush, antiwar and antitrade.” Be careful: despite the mess Mr. Bush has made in the world, or maybe because of it, Americans will not hand the keys to a Democrat who does not convey a “gut” credibility on national security.