Addressing the Elephant in the Room

November 20, 2006

I realize Democrats won the elections, but I believe the last thing the president should do the next two years is retreat from his agenda or extend the hand of bipartisanship to liberal Democrats who will only bite it off to a nub anyway.

The elections are not a mandate for the Democrats’ policy agenda, because they didn’t offer one. I tend to agree with the commentators who contend the elections were not a repudiation of conservative principles, but a referendum on the GOP’s perceived competence. If so, the lesson should not be to tack toward the center, or radically alter their ideological approach, but to govern more effectively.

I believe President Bush should govern proactively, not reactively, in his final two years, choosing a handful of issues and pressing forward boldly to promote them: extending the tax cuts, retaining the necessary tools to prosecute the war on terror, drastically reducing domestic spending, immigration reform (the GOP House version — I know that’s wishful thinking), and Social Security reform — this time with a plan, not just an open-ended invitation for proposals. He cannot and must not expect good faith cooperation from Democrats, except the newly elected conservatives among them.

But to achieve meaningful progress on any of these issues, he first has to work toward restoring his credibility on Iraq, the oxygen-sucking elephant in the room. He cannot possibly lead effectively on Iraq without clearly communicating the options and the pros and cons of each.

We read that a Pentagon study on Iraq is going to tell us we have three options: more troops (“Go Big,)” fewer troops but stay longer (“Go Long”), or pull out (“Go Home”). We hear the Iraq Study Group has no magic bullets, but will recommend that we negotiate with the terrorist states of Iran and Syria. If true, we should take this commission’s recommendations with pillars of salt.

What about the fourth option? It is not just Gen. John Abizaid who is saying that troop levels in Iraq are not the problem. Some commentators agree, but go further, saying that we are not fighting the war to win, but are allowing the Iraqi government to handcuff us in our conduct of the war and pursuit of certain enemy factions.

I think it’s time the administration responded to these questions directly with detail and specificity, if for no other reason than to stop the idle speculation among doubters.

Are we really forcing our troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs? If so, why? Is it because the administration believes that unleashing our forces will militate against Iraqi sovereignty? Even if so, isn’t it time we reconsider the opportunity cost of such deference: that this war is dragging on longer than the American public is willing to tolerate?

Also, does the administration believe Iran and Syria are behind much of the terrorism and ethnic violence in Iraq? If so, how can we afford not to attack these “problems” directly? Or are we already?

Further, it might be helpful if the administration gave us a clearer picture of our desired end-game in Iraq. Isn’t it true that we don’t have to achieve anything close to a violence-free zone in Iraq in order to accomplish our mission and leave? Shouldn’t our goal merely be to train the Iraqi troops to the point that they can furnish stability for a government — preferably democratic — that is friendly to the United States and that will not allow itself to be a safe haven or training ground for international terrorism?

I happen to be among the apparent minority of people who still have confidence in President Bush and what he’s trying to accomplish in Iraq. But unless he answers some of these questions, and others, it’s doubtful that the American people’s understanding of the situation will improve and their support for the mission will be rekindled.

To be sure, no matter what he says on the subject, Democrats will try to distort it and some Republicans will attack it, claiming superior knowledge to the generals in the field and superior wisdom to the politicians off the field. But the president won’t have a fighting chance to sustain this battle if he doesn’t do a better job of getting his message across.

This is not only necessary to advance the cause in Iraq and the war on terror, but to enable us to focus meaningfully on the other important issues facing our nation, none of which we can afford to place indefinitely on hold during this phase of the war. Not coincidentally, addressing the elephant in the room is also necessary to a much-needed resurgence of the GOP.