Change the course

Posted: Oct 23, 2006 10:18 PM

President Bush's resolve is something to behold. One Bush aide tells a story of how when he left Texas to work for Bush in the White House after the 2000 election, a friend gave him a photograph of Lyndon Johnson visibly crushed at his desk, looking at casualty reports from Vietnam. The point was to remind this Bush adviser that the burdens of the office can break any man.

Six years into a turbulent presidency, Bush is determinedly un-crushed. Under the weight of a difficult war in Iraq, of regular meetings with families who have lost loved ones, of a hostile press and a vitriolic opposition, Bush has never given any indication of being run down. It is a testament to his physical and, above all, his spiritual strength.

The problem for Bush is that in the current environment, his resolve has become a drag. People hear him say that he will stay in Iraq even if only Laura and Barney still support him, and they think it signals a stubborn unwillingness to adjust. They hear him say that the next president will have to decide whether or not troops are in Iraq, and it sounds as if Bush's Iraq policy is on a mindless auto-pilot.

This is why the phrase "stay the course" has flipped in its political significance. It used to be the rallying cry of the war's supporters. Now, it is gleefully used by critics to discredit the war's supporters. Shrewd Republicans, including the president, have tried to get out from under the phrase by saying they want to "adapt to win." But "stay the course" is sticking, and to the extent that the election is a referendum on that position, Republicans will lose.

Not many people want to stay the course in Iraq, and why should they? The Baghdad security plan is faltering, the violence is intensifying and the Iraqi government is dithering. This is why the Democrats' nebulously defined call for changing the course in Iraq is so attractive. Even many hawks want to change the course (if in an entirely different way than the war's opponents). Bush cannot cede this ground to the Democrats.

He needs to give a "change the course" speech. He cannot give up on his essential goal of establishing a stable, democratic Iraq, but he needs to signal that the strategy in Iraq, the number of troops (we might need more), and all constructive ideas from Democrats or Republicans are on the table, because he is not happy with the progress there and he is working to find better approaches. Bush has given the impression of being detached from reality in Iraq, and that sense is simply deadly.

It seems clear already that Bush's Iraq policy will undergo adjustments, with leaks about setting benchmarks for Iraqi performance, with the Baker/Hamilton commission working on policy recommendations and with speculation that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will step down. It would be perverse for Bush to take the political hit from being associated with "staying the course" this November, when that isn't what he intends to do after the election.

For a president who talks so much about being a wartime leader and whose administration so emphasizes the prerogatives of the executive, Bush has been an oddly passive commander in chief. He often seems to be run by his government rather than the other way around. He rarely fires anyone. His deference to his generals is near total. He hasn't acted at key moments to resolve debilitating bureaucratic battles within his administration. He might be the "decider," but his deciding hasn't reached down far enough to see that his strategic decisions are effectively implemented.

There is a crisis in Iraq for all to see. Bush has to make it plain that he sees it too, and that his government is going to react to it. If he doesn't, his admirable resolve risks becoming a millstone around the neck of himself and his party.