The Iraq war has accentuated sharp ideological differences among our elected officials and among citizens. But there has been virtual unanimity on one point: A deep respect and gratitude for the young Americans who are risking life and limb both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, I traveled to Iraq where I received extensive briefings from military commanders and toured our state-of-the-art facilities. But nothing was more informative than sitting down to meals with enlisted soldiers from California.
Many of these soldiers are on their second or third tour of duty. I talked to fathers who have babies back home they have never seen. There were mothers who deployed mere months after giving birth. To a person, they are thoughtful, intelligent and loyal -- to their country, their mission and each other. They were respectful, but also unafraid to ask me pointed questions. They understood that my vocal anti-war activism is in no way inconsistent with my support of them. These are genuine heroes, whose courage and resolve is greater than any accolades can possibly convey.
Our exceptional troops deserve leaders as honorable and capable as they are, but instead they've been exploited by civilian superiors who sent them to Iraq on false pretenses, on a poorly defined mission, without all the tools they need and without a plan to end our military engagement in Iraq.
With the casualty count of U.S. military personnel in Iraq nearing 2,000 and $1 billion in tax monies spent on Iraq every week, the American people are justifiably demanding -- and our troops deserve -- a plan, a strategy, something other than an open-ended military commitment.
If victory is the goal, what exactly defines victory? What are the benchmarks of success? What is the plan? What does the end-game look like? We're long past the time when simplistic answers -- stay the course; we'll be there as long as we need to be there -- are acceptable.
My fear, based on what I learned in Iraq, is that we are preparing for a long-term military presence, which is exactly what is fueling the rage of the insurgency, turning Iraq into a terrorist hotbed and inspiring vicious anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world. An American commander told me, in fact, that the majority of insurgents are not from the broader Middle East, but are Iraqis, motivated by resentment of the U.S. occupation of their land. Conversely, I fear that we could beat a hasty and sloppy retreat, driven by the political calendar rather than sound strategic considerations.
We don't know what the next steps are because President Bush won't tell us, which leads me to believe he doesn't know. In other words, he's improvising. Last month, I assembled military strategists and Middle East experts for an informal congressional hearing (Republican leaders ignored my calls for a formal hearing under the auspices of the relevant committees) that explored practical strategies for withdrawing our troops while remaining constructively engaged in the rebuilding of Iraq.
The consensus of the informal hearing was that the question isn't "if" or "when" American military presence in Iraq should end, but "how." How disengagement would proceed in terms of multilateral cooperation, diplomacy, reconciliation and reconstruction.
Meanwhile, the president can muster nothing more than the same old shopworn rhetoric: Terrorism bad, freedom good. For a nation paying a steep price in blood and money, honesty and transparency is not too much to ask in return. We deserve better, and the extraordinary men and women who wear the uniform most certainly deserve better. We deserve a clear strategy to return Iraq to the Iraqi people and the troops to their families. It's time to come home in an orderly fashion, leaving behind a sovereign, stable Iraq that we continue to support through a range of economic, political and humanitarian partnerships.
The White House ought to heed these words: "Victory means exit strategy, and it's important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is."
That's not the statement of a Democratic leader or prominent Iraq war opponent. It was said in April 1999, in reference to President Clinton's military intervention in Kosovo, by a Republican governor named George W. Bush.
Lynn Woolsey represents Marin and Sonoma counties in the U.S. House of Representatives.
© 2005 The San Francisco Chronicle