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Battle, Joined


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One of the most stirring lines from Bush’s Iraq speech yesterday was his vow, “America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander-in-chief.” In his response to the speech, John Kerry denounced the line as an attack on a straw man: “No one has ever suggested or believes that we should run in the face of car bombers or assassins.” Oh, really? Almost simultaneously on Capitol Hill, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was endorsing Rep. John Murtha’s call for an immediate pullout and vouchsafing that most of his fellow House Democrats support it too. And so the balance of the Democratic party is swinging behind the very position that John Kerry says no one supports.

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The battle lines are being drawn with increasing clarity on Iraq. More and more Democrats will give up on their former posture of denouncing Bush’s handling of the war without offering any real alternative of their own, and instead forthrightly enunciate their own favored policy: quitting. There is a kind of honor in this–at least it is the position many of them have always believed in. But it is their shame that it has taken a dip in support for the war in the polls for them finally to be frank about it.

This is a debate that Bush can win. He will have to remain fully engaged in it, not letting his attention lapse as it has at various times over the last year. Yesterday’s speech was an impressive entry into the debate, the sort of explanation and argument Bush will have to repeat again and again. It was specific. It admitted errors, which it would be pointless to try to deny. It emphasized that Bush’s resolve doesn’t mean a lack of flexibility in tactics. And it made clear his continued determination to achieve victory.

“There is no substitute
for progress on the ground
in Iraq.”

Cogent speeches, however, can only go so far. There is no substitute for progress on the ground in Iraq. That requires a coordinated political-military strategy, and the administration has one. It is a sign of how badly the rhetorical fight has been going that the “no strategy” meme has gotten the traction it has. The administration is working to keep the political process on track to create a legitimate, permanent Iraqi government; forge a national reconciliation that limits Sunni disaffection; train Iraqi forces so that they can take over security functions from us. Not only is this a strategy, in its broad outlines it is the only strategy that makes any sense. Even a persistent critic like Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria says this strategy is making headway in Iraq.

All that said, the American public probably won’t be convinced that we are making progress until we begin to draw down American troops. This creates a temptation for the administration to engage in a wishful evaluation of the state of Iraq to justify troop withdrawals. It should be resisted. The strategic gains we have made in Iraq have been bought with too much blood and treasure to give them back in the hopes of winning a bump in the polls here at home. But there is a confluence of both American and Iraqi domestic politics on the question of American troop levels–it will help the political situation in both countries to have fewer U.S. troops in Iraq, so long as the reductions are justified by conditions and not made according to an artificial timetable that will only encourage our enemy.

America now has two choices before it: attempting to see the war through, or running from car bombers and assassins. Bush has staked his claim, and so have the Pelosi Democrats. The battle is joined.



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