Thursday, December 14, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Baker plan makes sense

Not even President Bush’s most biting partisan critics can rejoice at the terrible decision that he must make in this winter most bleak. The war that is the centerpiece of his presidency and the near totality of his legacy is reviled by some 70 percent of Americans, and nearly everyone, including his old and new secretaries of defense and his field commanders, believe that the war policies have failed miserably. He acknowledges that somehow he must change course.

Worse, no one — no one! — has a good solution, only options that have a remote chance of allowing the United States to escape with a measure of honor and the desperate people of Iraq to have a life outside the jungle. Every plan, from immediate and unconditional withdrawal to gradual pacification schemes, carries the dread of even greater slaughter and chaos in Iraq and throughout the region.

That includes the 79-point plan of the Iraq Study Group, whose leaders admit that they have only the slightest confidence that it will work. Lee Hamilton, the Democratic co-chairman, says it may already be too late, but if it is not that moment is surely near. The worst assessments are by James H. Baker, the Republican co-chair and the lead craftsman of the plan. That must be hard for Bush for he owes his presidency as much to Jim Baker as to anyone. Baker, the chief adviser to both the elder Bush and Ronald Reagan, managed the post-election judicial campaign that got Bush declared the president by a 5-4 majority of the U. S. Supreme Court exactly six years ago.

Before Bush’s tormented presidency ends, people may well conclude that the most provident course was that recommended this year by the old warrior Rep. John Murtha, who wants to pull all American combat forces to the perimeter and negotiate with Arab states and allies to help stabilize the country. The president insists that is cutting and running, and the American people are not quite there yet either. While it would end American bloodshed, we could be blamed for the greater bloodletting that some believe would follow when sectarian militias and bands turned with impunity upon those of errant faiths.

The Iraq Study Group, despite the hurrah, does not propose dramatic change on the field, except it sort of commits the country to withdrawing combat troops by the end of the Bush presidency if conditions permit. But the president immediately, but we hope tentatively, rejected the idea that United States troops will ever leave the battlefield short of outright victory.
He needs to see the Baker plan for what it is, his last best chance for political cover and a military miracle and embrace its fundamentals by the end of the year. We hope that his new defense secretary and the commanders he says that he listens to will persuade him.

The worst mistake could be for the president to ignore Baker’s insistence that the administration negotiate with unfriendly governments in the region, principally Iran and Syria. Bush says he won’t do it unless they agree in advance to surrender on all the issues he has with them. Except those already defeated in battle, no country has ever entered negotiations on those terms.

Every president from Roosevelt to Clinton has talked to enemies, frequently with good result. Eisenhower and Reagan found it productive to negotiate with communist regimes they despised and distrusted. Bush sounds brave and principled to say that he will not talk to sworn enemies, but it is schoolyard bravado. Remember, nearly 3,000 brave soldiers have died, another 20,000 suffered crippling wounds, more than 650 civilians working with military contractors have given their lives, and before Bush’s presidency ends we will have poured a trillion dollars of treasure to defeat and pacify a country already beaten and impoverished by two wars and sanctions. Our military, tied down and atrophied by the desert warfare, is no longer a credible deterrent to rascality anywhere else on the planet.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — no one keeps a good count of what happens to Iraqis — have died and some 1.6 million have fled to other countries, principally Jordan, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to escape life that has turned more primitive and savage than they had known under Saddam Hussein.

What else can be risked by talking to men we know as rogues? The dictator in Syria and the democratically elected leader of Iran have no interest in helping George Bush or the United States, but they have self-interests in a stable Iraq. All but the most deranged leaders operate from self-interest. (We might make an exception of the lunatic who runs North Korea.) Iran, a Shiite country, has been helpful from the first in Afghanistan because the Iranians hated the anti-Shiite Taliban and al Qaeda. It rejoiced at the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of a Shiite-controlled neighbor.

Neither Syria nor Iran has any interest in a sectarian war that spreads across borders and threatens their own supremacy. All the Arab governments, democratic and totalitarian, in fact, fear such a conflagration because militant sectarianism imperils their shaky holds on power. The gathering refugee crisis along the borders, which includes Syria and Jordan principally but also Iran, threatens the economic and social fabric of those countries. In the end, it will be a joint Arab resolution that pacifies Iraq and gets us out.

It will be an honorable exit. Nothing will be hurt by trying, except the president’s pride. It will be a small price to pay on the outside chance that he can pull it off.