Shake Up The War Room

By Peter Beinart
Sunday, June 26, 2005; B07

President Bush and Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California deserve each other. Woolsey is a founder of the newly created Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus. She recently told Roll Call that "Success for us is two words: Troops. Home."

That's breathtakingly irresponsible. Of course success means eventually bringing American troops home. But it also means ensuring that Iraq doesn't dissolve into civil war. Preventing Iraq from becoming a failed state that exports a new generation of jihadist killers is vital to American security. And making sure we don't abandon the Iraqi people to Lebanon-style slaughter is vital to American honor. Woolsey doesn't seem to understand that.

But the Out of Iraq Caucus didn't come from nowhere. It's the result of President Bush's ongoing refusal to speak honestly about the war. All but the most die-hard sycophants now acknowledge that before the war the Bush administration exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties. And that it lowballed the costs -- in money, troops and time -- of building a stable, liberal government in Baghdad. Yet even today the president keeps playing the same dishonest games. In his June 18 radio address, Bush said, in the context of Iraq, that "we went to war because we were attacked." He's still implying a connection between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11, 2001 -- even now!

A plurality of Americans now believe they were "deliberately misled" before the war. When the president talks to the country about Iraq on Tuesday night, he needs to address that. Otherwise, he'll never have the credibility to tell Americans the harsh truth: that Iraqi troops won't be ready to defend their government for two years or more. And until they can, brave young U.S. soldiers will have to keep doing the job.

A good way to begin addressing this credibility gap is by dumping John Bolton. The nomination of Bolton is a giant declaration that the Bush administration still thinks it did nothing wrong on prewar intelligence. As undersecretary of state for arms control, Bolton tried to hype the threat from Cuba, Syria and Iraq. And when intelligence analysts opposed him, he tried to fire them. Now the Bush administration wants to send him to the United Nations so he can opine about U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear program -- and be laughed out of the building.

Then Bush should dump Donald Rumsfeld -- whose continued employment signals that the Bush administration still thinks it did nothing wrong on prewar planning. Rumsfeld's refusal to listen to the Army, the State Department, outside experts and even conservative pundits who said that America needed more troops to secure postwar Iraq constitutes, in the words of former Coalition Provisional Authority senior adviser Larry Diamond, "criminal negligence." How can Bush offer a credible strategy for winning peace if he relies on an utterly discredited defense secretary to carry it out?

President Bush famously hates admitting mistakes. And he generally plays to his base. But on Iraq, those instincts are driving his administration off a cliff. The vast majority of Democrats, and most independents, now think Iraq was a mistake. And the calls for withdrawal are moving from the fringes of American politics to the center.

Congressional Democrats must resist those calls. As retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, a fierce critic of the war, recently explained, even a timetable for withdrawal is a terrible idea. Knowing America was on its way out would embolden the insurgency and undermine the Iraqis risking their lives to build a free country. Democrats who think calling for withdrawal is shrewd politics should remember John Kerry's vote against the $87 billion in reconstruction aid -- a stance that also polled well but signaled a political opportunism that hurt him badly in the end.

But if Bush wants to stem the rising sentiment for withdrawal, he needs to do something he has avoided for more than two years: He needs to make this a national war, not a partisan one. That means appointing independent figures to key jobs -- people like Richard Lugar or Sam Nunn, who come from outside the conservative cocoon. And it means speaking about Iraq with a humility that this administration has richly earned.

For America to win in Iraq, President Bush first needs to win back America's trust. Let's hope it's not too late.