The Democratic dog just caught the Iraqi firetruck it's been chasing for almost four years. Now what?
Wetting the back tires won't be enough. The victorious party's hard-left wing is anxious for an American humiliation. But that's not what the majority of Democrats want and it's a scenario that Dems on Capitol Hill, eyes on 2008, know they need to avoid.
Most Dem leaders realize that, with just a few missteps, Iraq could become their debacle. Their problem is that they never formulated a serious plan for Iraq. All rhetoric and no specifics, they just ran against the administration's bungling. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's long-overdue resignation yesterday robbed them of an obvious target. Now they have to deliver - or at least appear to be trying.
It's going to be hard. The political aim of the Democrats will be to continue talking a good game while avoiding responsibility through '08. They'll send up bills they know Bush will veto. And they'll struggle to hide the infighting in their own ranks - Dem unity on this war is about as solid as the unity of Iraq.
Now that they've won on the issue, the Dems would like Iraq to just go away. But it won't. And they've got to avoid looking weak on defense, so the military will get more money for personnel, at least. But we won't get a comprehensive plan to deal with Iraq or, for that matter, our global struggle with Islamist terrorists.
Of course, President Bush remains the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He still wields direct authority. In a forlorn-hope rescue effort, he may do what should have been done at the start: Send a lot more troops.
One proposal under discussion within the administration is to "send everything we've got" - to deploy every possible Army and Marine unit, no matter how worn and weary, for six months to "clean things up."
But what might have been done with relative ease in 2003 would be hard, bloody and expensive in 2007. And it still might not work: In the end, the Iraqis have to share our vision for their future. At present, they don't.
In the bizarre political confusion of our times, with old party characterizations nearly meaningless, one crucial factor that shaped the Iraq effort went unnoticed: Neither party understands warfare, and neither party wants to.
Political correctness shaped the Bush administration's approach to military operations as decisively as it did the Clinton administration's pop-gun antics. The Bush bunch just did things on a larger scale - they wanted a war, but didn't want to hurt anybody.
No matter how many troops we send, we're bound to fail if the troops aren't allowed to fight - under the leadership of combat commanders, not politically attuned bureaucrats in uniform. At present, neither party's leaders want to face the truth about warfare - that it can't be done on the cheap and that war can't be waged without shedding blood.
The lack of military experience among the leaders of both parties has cost us dearly. Clinton and Bush both wanted to use the military, but didn't trust the military. Both squandered American lives and credibility.
Our security problem doesn't lie with just one party, but with our selfish, incestuous political class.
For the next two years, the go-to guy in the national-security field is going to be Sen. John McCain. He's now the real "decider," positioned to serve either as the brakeman on the administration's runaway train or as the switchman in the political yard if the Dems get a rational policy on track.
McCain's in a much stronger position than he was a few days ago - the Republican nomination is now his. The midterm elections were a repudiation not only of the administration's non- strategy in Iraq, but of the small-but- vocal Taliban wing of the Republican Party - the anti-science, woman-fearing inquisitors. They hoped to block McCain's nomination. Now, from Pennsylvania to Missouri, they're the walking dead in the political landscape.
But McCain, a heroic figure who genuinely seeks to do the right thing for our country, has to be careful. His sense of duty could lead him to support an ill-conceived administration effort to "pull it off at last" in Iraq.
Just sending more troops isn't a strategy. Those soldiers and Marines would need a clear mission that focused on winning - not on pleasing the media or Saudi Arabia.
If, at this late hour, our president and his advisers can forge a viable, no-nonsense plan for Iraq, fine. But putting a bigger bandage on the hemorrhage won't help.
The Democratic win does bring us two benefits regarding Iraq. First, it means public accountability, something every administration, Republican or Democrat, needs. Second, it sends a message to the gang of looters atop Iraq's government that the free lunch won't last forever, that they've got to get serious about leading their country.
Of course, the Iraqis may scramble even more wildly to ingratiate themselves with sectarian factions and steal what's left to steal before we leave. Never underestimate the Arab genius for self-destruction.
So what now?
Advice to the Dems: You've won. Congratulations. Now get your extremists under control and assess Iraq honestly. And don't just mew about supporting our troops - do it.
Advice to the Bush administration: Don't take desperate measures in Iraq without thinking them all the way through. Mr. President, sit down one-on-one with the two- stars who command or commanded in Iraq - the fighting generals - without any Defense Department apparatchiks manipulating what you hear. Listen to the unfiltered truth.
Advice to Sen. McCain: Ask the tough questions before either the administration or the Democrats on the Hill make a bad situation worse in Iraq. Our government needs adult supervision. You're it.
Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and author.
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