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Bush Will Let Iraq Keep Drifting

by Elizabeth Sullivan

President Bush removed any doubts in Cleveland on Tuesday: It will be up to someone else to face up to the damage done in Iraq.It's someone else's problem that the world's most powerful military is about to run out of forces to carry out missions that no longer make much sense.

Those U.S. generals in Iraq struggling to figure out a workable U.S. strategy when they have no durable allies in Iraq? They should call their own shots on the war. Far be it from the commander in chief to interfere.

Let's just call President Bush the undecider in chief.

The president explained in Cleveland that the 9/11 terrorist attacks made him implacable about carrying the war to the enemy.

"I realized the biggest responsibility government has is to protect the American people from further attack, and that we must confront dangers before they come to hurt us again," the president told business leaders at the Intercontinental Hotel.

He didn't mention that the 9/11 enemy, al-Qaida, didn't prosper in Iraq until the U.S. attack and occupation gave it the foothold it could only dream about before.

So where is the decider in chief when he's needed?

White House planning for a phased withdrawal will not eliminate the likelihood that U.S. troops will face years of exposure to violence in Iraq as garrison forces or regional peace-keepers. However, it will make less likely a pell-mell withdrawal that could lead to Iraqi implosion and widened regional war - the very disasters the president seems most fixated upon.

Yet even as President Bush resists leadership on Iraq policy, his administration has quietly dialed back on an earlier foreign policy fiasco to a far less ideological, more pragmatic place.

The U.S. confrontation with North Korea was an idea President Bush devised early in his first term, well before 9/11 and the post-9/11 military offensives, that was motivated by similar ideas of a more muscular policy.

Bush sought to trash arms-control treaties he saw as inadequate to containing rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq and instead pushed the untested multibillion-dollar boondoggle of missile defenses.

The consequences have been just the reverse of what was intended.

The collapse of a 1994 plutonium freeze with North Korea drove Pyongyang to obtain nuclear weapons - one bomb tested and eight or more on the shelf. Iraq became the failed centerpiece for the notion that military force alone could eradicate rogue threats. Iran was pushed onto the fast track for industrial production of enriched uranium fuel.

Even previously pacifist Japan now wants to spend $1.3 billion a year building U.S. missile defenses that will change the balance of power in Asia.

On North Korea, the Bush administration has seen the light: The prior freeze on plutonium production is back and U.N. weapons inspectors booted in 2002 are about to turn on their surveillance cameras again.

President Bush also spoke at length in Cleveland about the need to continue "the march of democracy" as an antidote to the sort of hopelessness and oppression that breed terrorism. He's right. Yet from the Palestinian territories to the former Yugoslavia, Washington repeatedly has shown its allergy to democrats with a small "d" who vote for candidates America doesn't favor.

North Korea may be the world's single greatest abuser of human rights - a place where prisoners can rot in detention camps so long that generations of their emotionally stunted children are born there. Yet it's also true that the most pragmatic approach to containing the threats of big war may be to start small, by substituting diplomacy for threats, and maybe then being able, gradually, to pull a paranoiac regime in from the cold.

It may not work. But at the very least, it's a recipe for leadership to try.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan bsullivan@plaind.com.

© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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