WASHINGTON -- The search for a solution to the war in Iraq has been put on hold in the government until a bipartisan 10-member commission submits its recommendations next month.
After a volcanic election that ousted Republicans and put Democrats in charge of Congress, largely because of mounting U.S. war casualties, a huge gulf still exists over what to do next.
President Bush, admitting to deep frustration over the course of the war, is open to "fresh ideas" about how to fight the war, says chief of staff Josh Bolten. Democrats, who won last week on the promise of a new military strategy, still have no detailed plan of their own, except withdrawal. Their leaders said on the Sunday talk shows that they would push for phased troop reductions when they take over in January.
The chief architect of Bush's military strategy, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has submitted his resignation and a new defense chief, Robert Gates, who has spent most of his professional life in intelligence work and is known as a compromiser, will take over once the Senate confirms him.
All hopes seem to now rest with the congressionally sanctioned blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group, a special commission led by former Republican secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, to devise a new plan to try to end a terrorist and sectarian war with no end in sight. The panel has interviewed Iraqi leaders, U.S. military officials and this week met with Bush and senior defense and intelligence officials.
Strangely, the panel, which includes former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, Clinton pal Vernon Jordan and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has few military/foreign-policy experts. Moreover, there is little or no evidence thus far that Baker and Hamilton have been able to come up with a consensus that can appeal to both sides.
In the few interviews Baker has given recently, he expressed doubt that a U.S. troop withdrawal can be pulled off without a full-scale civil war that plunges the country into even more chaos.
Last week, Hamilton told the Washington Post "We need to reach agreement, and that may not be possible." Translation: Democrats on the panel may not go along with anything that does not include some degree of troop withdrawal next year, nor will House and Senate Democrats.
The gulf that exists in the Senate, for example, is exemplified by two wildly divergent positions. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming Armed Services Committee chairman, wants "to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months." Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wants to send more troops there, warning any withdrawal would not only result in chaos in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the terrorist and sectarian warfare worsens each week, and many in the Bush administration are losing confidence in Prime Minister al-Maliki's government. Bush wonders privately whether the Iraqis will ever be able to produce civilian leaders strong enough to overcome the terror insurgency.
It is in this near-hopeless environment that Baker is searching to bring outside adversaries into a solution, like Syria and Iran. He held a three-hour dinner meeting with Iran's U.N. ambassador that raised eyebrows among neoconservatives who support the war.
Clearly, there will be Democratic withdrawal resolutions next year, if not before. However, Levin told the Post that any troop measure "would not contain detailed benchmarks mandating how many troops should be withdrawn by specific dates."
It is unclear what Baker's panel will produce, but my instincts tell me that any plan to save Iraq must ultimately involve a feared Iraqi force that can more quickly take over the security of its country. That force must increase, so we can decrease.
Reconstruction and all other forms of noncombat, nonmilitary aid must give way to one overriding mission: recruiting and training a much larger and more lethal Iraqi army, including special forces, and a military-police force second to none. U.S. troops there must be turned into a training, air logistics and weapons-supply force as quickly as possible.
A critical strategy change: To prevent terrorists from killing more Iraqi recruits, training must be done in secret, remote locations elsewhere in the region. The job of the U.S. military after that will be to arm these beefed-up security forces to the teeth with the best and most lethal weaponry we can give them to fight for their country for as long as it takes.
This is a page out of President Ronald Reagan's playbook when he drove the Evil Empire out of Afghanistan and fought the Marxist guerrillas in now-democratic Nicaragua -- without the use of U.S. troops.
A plan that turns the U.S. military in Iraq into an enlarged recruiting and training force is a plan that a divided Congress can support, as well as the Iraqis, because it will hasten the day when they'll be doing all the fighting.