The Corner

“Win or leave”?

I’m beginning to wonder if Bush shouldn’t give a big Iraq speech saying something like, “Look, I see the same things everyone else does in Iraq, and I’m ready for a radical new approach–win or leave. The day I’m convinced that the Iraqi political leadership isn’t serious about creating peace or stability in the country, we won’t stay a day longer. The minute I’m convinced that we can’t win, we get out. But we haven’t reached that point yet–although I’m constantly evaluating to see if we are–so we must still do everything we can to win. That’s why I’m undertaking a review of my policy at all levels, from troop levels to my administration’s personnel to fresh ideas that have been offered by Republicans and Democrats. In coming weeks, I will have a new plan for Iraq, one that we will pursue with vigor to ensure that we win this crucial war.”

The downsides are that “win or leave” would signal to our enemies that our will is flagging (although the standards by which we are judging the Iraqis can be left vague, to leave plenty of wiggle room for us). Politically here at home, it might play as a signal of weakness, and therefore undermine Bush’s reputation for resolve, one of his few remaining assets. Both of these downsides may make it a bad idea (I’m just thinking out loud here).

But this is why I find the idea intriguing. People oppose “staying the course” in Iraq, and Bush has been put in the “stay the course” box both by the Democrats (pretty much the only ones who use the phrase anymore) and by his own rhetoric of staying in Iraq no matter what and defending the current strategy no matter what. “Win or leave” would allow Bush to steal some of the Democrats’ “change the course” thunder. We are getting to the point where we will have to win (broadly defined) or leave anyway, no matter what Bush says. In fact, there is some chance that he might have to give this sort of speech eventually after the election in any case, so he might as well do it now from a position of relative strength and while he can get some political credit for it. “Win or leave” as a general sentiment has populist, common sense appeal, and it would give Republicans a way to talk about Iraq that is politically defensible again. Finally, it might highlight how a lot of Democrats don’t seem to have much interest in “winning” only in “leaving,” which would hurt them among the substantial portion of the public that still thinks winning is an important goal.

Now, as I said earlier, this might be a rotten idea. But Bush has to find some way to combat the notion that he is denying reality in Iraq and not reacting to it forcefully and meaningfully enough. If this isn’t the way to do it (and it very well might not be), he should find some other way.

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