In this year's State of the Union address, George W. Bush proved again his preference for the rhetoric of deception. Unable to marshal a convincing argument for his war in Iraq yet determined to silence his critics, Bush insisted that for patriotic Americans there is simply no choice except his failing strategy.
"A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like [Osama] bin Laden and [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little," he warned. "However we feel about the decisions and debates of the past our nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in this vital mission."
Predictably those clichés won strong applause -- who doesn't clap when the president demands support for U.S. troops? -- but as usual the bid for inspiration concealed more than a bit of deception.
Would the withdrawal of our forces leave Baghdad to al-Qaida? No, because the foreign-led jihadists represent a small fraction of the insurgency. Must we continue the occupation indefinitely to prove that we "stand behind" the American military? No, because the war is damaging our military strength, and to support the troops means finding a way out of the sand trap as swiftly as possible. And is there "only one option" for the American nation? That's wrong too, although the Democratic leadership didn't dare say so in the feeble response delivered by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.
"There's a better way," Kaine repeated like a mantra, but he never bothered to tell us what that might be. The answer is straightforward, is honorable and might even succeed: The United States, its coalition partners and the Iraqi government must open serious negotiations with the Sunni insurgency, aiming toward a durable cease-fire and a timetable for American withdrawal. There need be no political penalty for advocating such negotiations because U.S. officers have already pursued discussions with Iraqi insurgents -- and because those discussions represent official policy in Iraq.
The U.S. media has devoted little space to those talks, but the Washington Post and the British press have occasionally reported on them. Last summer, the Sunday Times of London revealed that American officers had participated in two meetings with insurgent leaders in a villa north of Baghdad. Among those in attendance were representatives of the Ansar al-Sunna army, the group responsible for the atrocious mess hall bombing at the U.S. base near Mosul, Iraq, in December 2004. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid both confirmed that those talks had taken place -- and that many more meetings had occurred in hopes of "splitting" the insurgency.
This week, news of peace talks with the insurgents surfaced again. The United Nations news service, IRIN, reported that Sunni politicians claimed to be making progress in discussions with insurgent leaders, while confronting an obstacle that remains beyond their control. "For the last month we've been trying to convince militias to put down their guns until they see whether or not the new government can bring positive results," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, one of the leaders of the Iraqi Accord Front, a Sunni Islamist coalition that supports participation in the political process. According to him, the weekly meetings between his party and the insurgents have encouraged hope for an eventual cease-fire.
"We've made good progress," he said. "But the presence of foreign troops could cause this accord to fail at any time." That is hardly surprising, since recent polls indicate that about 80 percent of Iraqis want Washington and Baghdad to set a date for when the occupation will end.
The IRIN article quoted a man known as Abu Omar, identified as a leader of the insurgent Muhammad army in Anbar province. He confirmed that his group and several others had approved a possible cease-fire, but vowed: "We will quit fighting only if the U.S. military gives us a date for its withdrawal."
Then the insurgent leader hinted that serious negotiations could not only extricate our troops from Iraq but simultaneously create the conditions for an important victory against our real enemy.
"We're more open to the possibility of improvements in Iraq," said the insurgent commander, "but al-Qaeda doesn't care for such things because it's not composed of Iraqis. It's made up of foreigners who have come to exploit the differences between our brothers."
The meaning of Omar's remarks could hardly be clearer. He and his insurgent comrades will end their murderous rebellion against the Iraqi government if and when they can be assured that U.S. troops will withdraw. And when they are assured that we will leave, they will turn on al-Qaida and either wipe it out or expel it from Iraq.
If the Bush administration insists that we must "defeat" the insurgency, or stand up an Iraqi army that can pacify the country, then negotiations are useless. If Bush insists on identifying all of the insurgents with al-Qaida, then there isn't anyone with whom we can negotiate. If the American objective is to create large permanent bases and to win control of Iraqi oil, then our troops cannot leave and the bloody conflict will grind on without any foreseeable conclusion.
The negotiations that have occurred already, fitful though they may be, show another way home for our troops. The president's claim that we have "only one option" in Iraq is untrue -- and the alternative is far more likely to advance the interests of America and the civilized world.
Too bad we have no politician with the wisdom and stature to say so.