On the eve of renewed antiwar protests in Washington and on the West Coast, and with public confidence in him plunging, George W. Bush vowed to continue Iraq war policies that have already failed. Bereft of resources and ideas, he resorted again Thursday to the slogans and clichés that used to serve him so well. And as if further proof were needed, he showed once more how poorly he understands the strategies and goals of America's real enemies.
From the beginning, Bush has sought to connect the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida, a notion thoroughly discredited but never surrendered. Speaking after a Defense Department briefing on the "global war against terror," he vowed that his administration would not withdraw troops from Iraq "on my watch" because that would permit terrorists "to claim an historic victory over the United States."
Said Bush, "The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission." Should that occur, he warned, then terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would come "to dominate the Middle East and launch more attacks on America and other free nations." He also said that we must "honor the sacrifice" of the nearly two thousand American troops who have died in Iraq "by completing the mission and winning the war on terrorism."
The notion that we must keep sending our soldiers to be killed because others have been killed scarcely deserves rebuttal. The American people have already rejected that argument, with 66 percent now in favor of bringing some or all U.S. troops home immediately, according to the latest Gallup Poll.
But what of Bush's insistence that an American withdrawal from Iraq would encourage Islamist terror? He is wrong -- and yet the concerns he is exploiting cannot be dismissed lightly.
The most obvious truth -- anticipated by experts and acknowledged most recently in a study by the eminently conservative and mostly Republican Center for Strategic and International Studies -- is that the precipitous, unjustified and destructive invasion of Iraq has further alienated the Muslim world and promoted Islamist fascism.
Based on Saudi interrogations of insurgents captured in battle, the study validated two important arguments for changing course. It showed that the invasion promoted terrorist ideology among young Saudis -- and it also indicated that the number of foreign terrorists in Iraq is far smaller than the White House has suggested.
Indeed, the CSIS study estimates that only a small percentage of the Iraqi insurgents are foreigners -- no more than 10 percent and perhaps as little as 5 percent. Just as important, even the foreign fighters in Iraq, according to the study, are motivated less by an all-encompassing Islamist ideology than by the specific goal of expelling Western occupiers from an Arab land.
So Bush is wrong to claim that continuing warfare in Iraq will defeat terrorism, when we know that terror is expanding there and that terrorist organizations are winning new adherents due to the war. He is also wrong because the Iraqi insurgency is a homegrown nationalist force, not a foreign-directed terrorist conspiracy.
Nevertheless, the war could end in a perceived defeat for the United States -- and a perceived victory for al-Qaida and its allies. Bush is understandably determined to prevent that, and even many of his most implacable critics agree that such an outcome must be avoided. The problem is that neither this arrogant and inept president nor his critics have outlined a plausible plan to escape the disaster he has created.
That's because Iraq has become as much a quandary as it is a quagmire. If American troops leave precipitously, the country will descend into a horrific civil war, perhaps even worse than what is happening now. Yet so long as our troops remain, more Iraqis are provoked into supporting the insurgency, and the situation continues to deteriorate.
The best and perhaps only way out is a negotiated settlement, reached under the auspices of the United Nations and Iraq's neighbors -- which could eventually persuade the Sunni nationalist rebels to lay down their weapons and enter the nascent political system instead. The way to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table is to promise that if they agree to a cease-fire and begin talks with the Iraqi government, we will begin to withdraw troops -- and to assure the Iraqis that a successful negotiation would lead to our complete withdrawal.
No doubt Bush would reply that we must not "negotiate with terrorists," but that would merely be more diversionary and meaningless verbiage. The long-standing policy of the U.S. government is to deal when necessary with governments that sponsor terror, such as Pakistan and Iran -- and to encourage our allies, such as Israel, to negotiate with terrorist groups. Certainly we can negotiate with the Sunni insurgents, despite their vile tactics, in order to bring peace and stability to Iraq.
Should that effort ultimately succeed, it could bring a valuable dividend. If and when the Sunni rebels decide to end their insurgency, they may well decide that the time has come to expel (or kill) Zarqawi and his irreconcilable gang of Islamist murderers. To whatever extent the former Baathists and other disgruntled Sunnis have been working with their old enemies in al-Qaida or other radical Islamists, their alliance of convenience is likely to crumble after the invasion and occupation that brought them together are over. By decoupling Arab nationalism from Islamist terrorism, the damage that Bush's war has done to American interests can begin to be repaired.
That would represent a real victory in the "war on terror."