All but the most intransigent radical critics of the president agree that the United States must "stay the course." Even if the war was unnecessary, even if it was based on flawed (perhaps deceptive) intelligence, even if the current mess was the result of foolish -- not to say nonexistent -- planning, it would be wrong to simply walk way from chaos that we created. We cannot abandon the people. We cannot risk our credibility as the only superpower in the world. We cannot make fools of ourselves. We must not become the laughingstock of the world.
That paragraph summarizes the conventional wisdom of 1968. It was the wisdom of ''the best and the brightest'' around President Lyndon Johnson and it became the wisdom of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for the next four years (while the number of American casualties doubled).
No two historical situations are exactly the same. Vietnam and Iraq are not the same places. The two wars are not precisely the same. Fair enough. However, in both cases the United States entered a war with the best intentions, monumental ignorance, and no exit strategy. The government never asked how and when it might be time to leave. So the two wars slogged on, as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, with no end in sight. We must stay the course, even if we don't know how long the course will be.
Might one say, in all due modesty, that this is crazy?
Could we not say to the Iraqis: Hey, you don't want us as an occupying power, and we don't want to be here any more than you want us to be here. So you have six months to get your act in order, and then we're out of here.
It will be said that this is a radical design for the end game. Maybe it is, but I predict that by, say, April or May, it will be Republican paradigm, the final stages of the administration's ''mission accomplished" in Iraq. As Sen. Warren Austin advised President Johnson, it is time to proclaim victory in Vietnam and get out. Johnson didn't listen. For him, winning the 1968 election wasn't worth the humiliation of an ignominious retreat.
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For President Bush, winning the 2004 election will be worth such a humiliation of an ignominious retreat. Mindful of his father's loss in 1992, there is nothing more important than winning the election. I would not deplore a decision to get out several months before the election as cowardly or divisive. On the contrary, I would praise it as wise, no matter what the president's motivations might be. It would have been surpassingly wise if Johnson had pulled the plug in 1968, however much credibility was lost. How many lives is ''credibility'' worth?
Sometime after the New Year, Karl Rove, the president's political guru, will whisper the truth in the great man's ear: We won't win the election unless we are out of Iraq. We have to be out of there by Labor Day or we'll be accused of running out on our allies to win the election. If we do it during the summer, or even better at the end of spring, we can declare it a victory.
That would not be a difficult promise to keep. The administration has proved that it can spin almost any decision -- like disguising the tax cut as a benefit to the middle class. The leadership in France and Germany might chortle with glee at our ''humiliation,'' but how many votes can they deliver?
What about American voters? Would they be deceived by a spin that declares that a defeat is victory? The president's ''base,'' Southern evangelicals, might have a hard time swallowing it. Their hyper-patriotism might be offended by the fact that we had lost another war. Yet they would buy almost anything to sustain their stranglehold on the country. As for the Democrats, how can they criticize the administration for exiting a war they say it shouldn't have entered in the first place? Most Democrats won't vote for him anyway.
And the always-shifting middle, which was once taken in by Bush: Will they be taken in again? I wouldn't bet against it, especially if there is a modest decrease in unemployment and Saddam Hussein is somehow found. The formula for a Bush victory is simple: Cut and run.