President Bush should take advice from a Vietnam-era Republican senator: Declare a victory in Iraq and get out.The late Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., gave that counsel to both Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon when things were going from bad to worse in the Vietnam War, but they ignored him.
Both presidents would have looked better in the history books had they listened to the venerable senator. But, alas, neither wanted to be seen as retreating or losing a war.
Bush is just beginning to come to terms with the high human and financial cost of fulfilling his obsession -- the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The loss of life among American soldiers and the bleeding of the U.S. economy are beginning to hit home with the public. The result: There is a new defensiveness among Bush and his top advisors.
The president also may have to give up the grand design of his neo-conservative hawkish advisors for establishing a new American foothold in the Middle East and ridding it of despotic leaders.
In his stilted address to the nation Sunday night, Bush said that he would ask Congress for approval to spend $87 billion for military operations and reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is in addition to the $79 billion already approved for the war.
''In Iraq,'' Bush said, ``we are helping a long-suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East.''
But somehow Bush seemed to have forgotten the primary reasons he gave earlier this year to justify invading Iraq -- weapons of mass destruction and the threat of an imminent attack by Hussein.
An 1,800-member U.S. task force scouring Iraq has yet to find those elusive weapons.
Asked on NBC's Today show why Bush avoided the topic of weapons in his Sunday-night speech, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice responded that the weapons were not much of a concern anymore.
''Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, and Saddam Hussein was the problem with weapons of mass destruction,'' Rice replied. ``Removing Saddam Hussein removes the threat of weapons of mass destruction.''
Last Friday, Wisconsin Rep. David Obey -- the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, which will be handling the multibillion-dollar request -- sent a letter to Bush suggesting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, be allowed ``to return to the private sector.''
Obey accused the two top Pentagon officials of making ``repeated serious miscalculations that have been extremely costly in lives . . . degradation of the military, isolation from allies and unexpected demands on the budget that is crowding our other priorities.''
Obey did not recommend pulling out of Iraq but said that U.S. foreign policy had to have new faces.
Stephen Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, wrote in the Financial Times on Monday that Bush should ask for the resignations of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Rice.
They are ''the people who got us into this mess,'' Walt said. ``The architects of this war have been proven wrong on almost every count.''
Bush said that Iraq has become ''the central front'' in the campaign against terrorism. He mentioned the words terror or terrorism some 20 times in his 18-minute speech.
U.S. intelligence agencies have found no link between Iraq, a solidly secular nation, and Osama bin Laden's fanatic al Qaeda.
L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, wrote in The Washington Post Monday that ''occupation is unpopular with the occupier and the occupied alike.'' The Iraqis should be given responsibility for their own security and economic development and political system ''as soon as possible,'' he said.
The president has not decided on a timetable to exit Iraq. But with the reelection campaign looming, he has to make some tough decisions soon. The first will be to share more authority in Iraq with the United Nations. He has apparently learned the hard way that even a military superpower has limits.