The next president will face the most determined antiwar movement since Vietnam. If Bush gets a second term, Democrats will be liberated to mount full blown protests and Republicans will be on the defensive. If it's Kerry, Democrats will be euphoric, but unsympathetic to prolonged war. Kerry would have perhaps six months before Bush's mess becomes his own.
Hawks insist that America, having made an epic blunder, must nonetheless stay the course, lest Bush's description of Iraq as a center of world terrorism mutate into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Prominent critics, ranging from Democrats like Harvard's Stanley Hoffmann and former US ambassadors Peter Galbraith and Morton Abramowitz to Republicans such as Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana, counsel early withdrawal. But, exactly how?
Any US exit strategy must include a long-term stabilization process, lest Iraq face anarchy and civil war or, worse, an Iraq-Iran regional alliance perhaps with nuclear weapons. Iraq is far more dangerous than Vietnam, where, to paraphrase Senator George Aiken, we could declare defeat and go home, and not jeopardize global security.
Unfortunately, nobody has yet offered an exit strategy that would allow the United States to withdraw yet prevent Iraq from remaining a cauldron.
If a President Kerry reversed course, he would face predictable Republican catcalls of "Who lost Iraq?" But even if Bush wins, there would be Republican, as well as Democratic, pressure to cut our losses. The neocon architects of the Iraq policy, who got Bush into this mess, would likely lose influence and the traditional foreign policy realists would take over, as in Reagan's second term.
Both candidates have proposed a summit of the great powers. Good start, but a serious exit strategy would also require America to put up much of the money for a multinational peacekeeping force of at least a quarter-million troops as well as economic reconstruction money, and a major UN role. That would be much harder for Bush than Kerry to swallow.
But most Americans would ultimately conclude: better their boys than ours, particularly since Iraqis are much less likely to shoot at an international force.
An American exit is better domestic politics and better Mideast politics. The UN in fact managed the Iraq situation far better than the Bush administration did, and the American people are getting very weary of this war.
The next president must change course in Iraq, or suffer a failed presidency -- and worse.
© 2004 Boston Globe