Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Election Day 2008 must have been filled with rueful paradoxes for the sitting president. Iraq -- the issue that dominated George W. Bush's presidency for five and a half bitter, controversial years -- is on the verge of a miraculous peace. And yet this accomplishment did little to revive Bush's political standing -- or to prevent his party from relegating him to a silent role.

The achievement is historic. In 2006, Iraq had descended into a sectarian killing spree that only seemed likely to stop when the supply of victims was exhausted. Showing Truman-like stubbornness, Bush pushed to escalate a war that most Americans -- and some at the Pentagon -- had already mentally abandoned.

The result? A Sunni tribal revolt against their al-Qaeda oppressors, an effective campaign against Shiite militias in Baghdad and Basra, and the flight of jihadists from Iraq to less deadly battlefields. In a more stable atmosphere, Iraq's politicians have made dramatic political progress. Iraqi military and police forces have grown in size and effectiveness and now fully control 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces. And in the month before Election Day, American combat deaths matched the lowest of the entire war.

For years, critics of the Iraq War asked the mocking question: "What would victory look like?" If progress continues, it might look something like what we've seen.

But Air Force One -- normally seen swooping into battleground states for rallies during presidential elections -- was mainly parked during this campaign. President Bush appeared with John McCain in public a total of three times -- and appeared in McCain's rhetoric as a foil far more often than that.

This seems to be Bush's current fate: Even success brings no praise. And the reasons probably concern Iraq. The absence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of the war was a massive blow. The early conduct of the Iraq occupation was terribly ineffective. And hopes that the war had turned a corner -- repeatedly raised by Iraqis voting with purple fingers and approving a constitution -- were dashed too many times, until many Americans became unwilling to believe anymore.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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