The New York Times leads today with David Sanger's story, "In White House, Debate Is Rising On Iraq Pullback; Political Considerations; Not Waiting For Sept. 15, Aides Seek to Forestall G.O.P. Defections." The piece is tendentious, as one would expect--but THE WEEKLY STANDARD has confirmed that there are real discussions going on at the White House, with advocates of what is being called "The Grand Bargain" pushing hard for the president to move soon to announce plans to pull back in Iraq. So this week will not only be a week of (mostly silly) debate on the Hill; it will also be an important moment of truth for the president, who will have to decide whether to give Gen. Petraeus and the soldiers a chance, or to accept the counsel of some of his advisers and begin to throw in the towel on Iraq.
Let me be clear: The president ordered the "surge," which only recently came to full strength and whose major operation has been going on for less than a month. If he were not to give it a chance to work, he would properly be viewed as a feckless, irresolute president, incapable of seeing his own strategy through a couple of months of controversy before abandoning it. He will have asked our soldiers to go on the offensive, assuming greater risk of casualties--and then, even though the offensive is working better than expected, will have pulled the plug on their efforts.
Indeed, the White House is living in a fool's paradise if they imagine that "compromising" now and in this way buys them anything. Even the New York Times editorial page has abandoned the pretence that its preferred strategy will lead to anything other than catastrophe in Iraq, and in the very near term. If the president gives in now, he will not be credited with a statesmanlike compromise. He will be lambasted by the left for fighting a bad war, and by the right for fighting it badly, recommitting us to the fight, and then losing it. The remainder of his term will be mired in congressional investigations as the waters fill with blood and the sharks go in for the kill. The Democrats will be emboldened to press him on every front, especially since Iraq is virtually the only position he's actually been defending. Lame duck does not even begin to describe where President Bush will be if he does this.
What's more, the president will lose any ability to mitigate the effects of the withdrawal or control it. The pullout will become a wild hell-for-leather race for the exit, and the result will be a triumph for al Qaeda and Iran, and a moral and geopolitical disaster for the United States.
The best strategy for the president is to hold firm. There is every reason to believe that he can survive the current calamity-Janes of the Republican party (does anyone really imagine that a veto-proof majority will form in the Senate this week or next?). This nonsense will pass, Congress will go on recess, and Petraeus will have a chance to continue to produce results--and the president and his allies will have a chance to gain political ground here at home. Why on earth pull the plug now? Why give in to an insane, irrational panic that will destroy the Bush administration and most likely sweep the Republican party to ruin? The president still has a chance to emerge from this as a visionary who could see what the left could not--but not if he gives in to them. There is no safety in the position some in the Bush administration are running towards.
Here's what I gather is a basic lesson of tactics: When you find yourself in an ambush, attack into the ambush. Don't twist and turn in the kill zone, looking for a way to retreat. Especially when the ambush is not a powerful one, and the Democrats' position (to mix military metaphors) is way overextended. The Democrats are hoping the president will break and run. They will not allow him a dignified retreat or welcome him with compromise. They will spring to finish him off completely. It doesn't matter what the president's motives are. Some of his advisers are trying to persuade him that he needs to go for a grand bargain now so as to build bipartisan support for his policies when he's gone. But the only way to do that is to hold firm now--and to counterattack. Those who try to convince him otherwise offer nothing but defeat, for the troops, for the mission, and for the president.