The most common cliché about the war in Iraq is now this: We didn't have a plan, and now everything is in chaos; we didn't have a plan, and now we can't win.
This is entirely wrong. We did have a plan - the problem is that the plan didn't work. And of course we can win - we just have to choose to do so.
The problem with our plan is that it wasn't actually a military plan.
We thought a political process inside Iraq would make a military push toward victory against a tripartite foe - Saddamist remnants, foreign terrorists and anti-American Shiites - unnecessary.
Yes, we'd stay in Iraq and fight the bad guys when we had to, which seemed mostly to be when they decided to attack us first. Our resolve was intended to give the Iraqi people the sense that they were being given control of their future, and to give Iraqi politicians the sense that they had a chance to forge a new kind of country in which everybody could prosper.
For this reason, we relented on several occasions when we had a chance to score a major victory over the bad guys. Because politics was more important than military victory, because playing the game was more important than killing the enemy, we chose to lose.
After the beheading of Americans in Fallujah, we had the city surrounded - but, because it seemed an attack on Fallujah would be problematic for Iraqi politics, we pulled back. We had the Shiite monster Moqtada al-Sadr in our sights as well, but let him go as well for fear Iraq's leading Shiite cleric would turn on us.
Each of these decisions seemed prudent at the time. In retrospect, they seem disastrous. Our failure to take Fallujah after the deaths of Americans gave the enemy the sense that we were weak. Our failure to kill Sadr has led to a situation in which he has excessive power over the elected government.
Still, the theory of how to prevail in Iraq made sense as a theory. What, after all, were the Saddamists and the terrorists fighting for? Clearly there would be no restoration of Saddam's cruel reign, and they couldn't score a battlefield victory against us. That's why Dick Cheney and others referred to them as "dead-enders" - because they were and are dead-enders. They had no achievable goal for securing power in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi people were voting in elections - 8 million in the first, 10 million in the second, 12 million in the third. They created a new political class where there'd been none before.
Once an actual Iraqi government was up and running, we expected the political progress to choke off the oxygen of the dead-enders. With an Iraq hurtling into the future, they would melt away because there was nothing for them to gain.
What's more, there was nothing in it for the Saddamists - Sunnis all - to provoke a civil war, because they'd lose. Shiites outnumber Sunnis 2-1, and there are as many Kurds and Sunnis.
So that was the plan. We didn't have to win against our foes: The Iraqi people were going to defeat them.
In other words, we were standing the Iraqis up so we could stand down.
Sound familiar? That is the prescription for leaving Iraq that's on everyone's lips - Democrats, Republicans, the Baker-Hamilton group.
And guess who else? Donald Rumsfeld. Yes, Bush's very own defense secretary clearly believed this was the way to go. In his classified memo, leaked to The New York Times over the weekend, Rummy says it's time for the Iraqis to "pull up their socks." We should pull back so the Iraqis don't depend on us to secure their future.
That was not a new idea for him or the administration. In May 2003, a senior administration official told me it was "time for the Iraqis to step up to the plate."
That's nice. But the Iraqis can't "step up to the plate," and they can't "pull up their socks." The plan envisioned that they could do so whenever they chose. The plan said their political progress would be the way for them to reach the plate and reach their socks.
The plan failed.
So we need a new plan. But the Baker-Hamilton advice isn't a new plan. The Democrats don't have a new plan. The only plan that will work is a plan to face the tripartite enemy - the Saddamists, the foreign terrorists and the Shiite sectarians - and bring them to heel.
Kill as many bad guys as we can, with as many troops as we can muster.
If this is unrealistic, then Iraq is lost.
If we can't win, then we lose.
Political change doesn't win wars. That's what we've learned, painfully and horribly. Only winning wars wins wars.
President Bush needs to decide, as soon as possible, that he is going to win this war - that the bad guys are going to die, that we are going to kill them and that we will achieve our objectives in Iraq. That is the only way forward for him if he doesn't want to end up in ignominy.
The clock is ticking. He has only a week, maybe two, to change course dramatically. To choose to win, and to direct the military to do so.
Or we are sunk, and so is he.
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