The mind keeps returning to Iraq. Partly that is because of a relentless press relentlessly hostile to the American enterprise there. And partly it is because Iraq - the ultimate outcome there - persists as one of the central issues confronting the United States and the West. So the mind keeps going back.
Key aspects relate to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. military role (including casualties and manning), and the January elections of Iraq's first free government since oh, about the time Nebuchadnezzar went goofy and ate grass.
About Rumsfeld, etc.
The left doesn't like him - never has. It has tried to load him down with - let's see: Abu Ghraib, the whole WMD thing, weapons suddenly vanished from Saddamite depots, the prosecution of the Iraqi end-game, and the failure to snare the elusive Osama; now the left is all angsted-up about President Bush's decision to retain Rumsfeld for Bush's second term. John McCain doesn't like Rumsfeld's handling of the war and says we need more troops: on to that in a minute.
For their part, the troops seem high on Rumsfeld. Here's what a first sergeant who was there says about Rumsfeld's recent visit to Iraq and the session with 2,000 soldiers, wherein one asked an embedded reporter's question that generated news about armored Humvees:
"Mr. Rumsfeld fielded a number of questions, took down notes for the ones he did not have answers to, and genuinely enjoyed talking to the soldiers. Afterward, he spent over an hour with the enthusiastic troops who literally mobbed him and would not let him leave. . . . It ended only when his security forced us away.
"He was applauded, he was given a standing ovation, and he was loved. He stood there like a professional, like a man, and he took the heat because that's what leaders do. And yet somehow, the American media turned that wonderful event into a 'disgruntled troops meet with Secretary Rumsfeld' headline. Incredible. The morale is high, the equipment is good and improving daily. Disregard what you read and hear from the media and trust in the American fighting men and women to do the right thing. We have excellent leadership and are doing what we signed up to do."
About manning levels
Do we need more troops? Probably so - on the ground in Iraq, and throughout the military. We can roll several thousand additional forces into Iraq for heightened security during the run-up to the elections, but it's almost too late for even that.
The larger question is the adequacy of manning levels in the nation's active-duty forces generally. The system is unfair The Army apparently is weighing whether to insert women into all-male combat brigades. Active-duty and Reserve tours are being extended; Reservists and Guardsmen are being summoned to a degree never imagined - such as the approximately 100 over-60 Reservists recalled for combat-zone duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What's more, the system undermines the effectiveness of the forces we do have. Inadequate manning levels require existing forces to do more and thereby drive down morale.
A selective draft chooses some and leaves out most. Volunteer service programs like AmeriCorps inevitably don't cut it and rarely address military needs. The best answer would seem to be one year of compulsory universal service for all men and women ages 18 to 23 - no exceptions - with a front-end military component.
It would build support for the military and provide a pool of modestly trained sympathetics the military could further train up in times of need, such as this. It also would begin to spread a sense of sacrifice among everyone - a sense now lacking practically everywhere. Such a program would come too late for this war, but President Bush - and Secretary Rumsfeld - should take the lead and get it established for the next war and beyond.
About the elections, etc.
They're scheduled for Jan. 30. In a region where victorious tribes exterminate members of losing tribes, Sunni Islamist die-hards - remnants of the tribe that has run Iraq for half-a-century - are fighting for their lives. Shiite Islamists are likely to prevail in the elections big-time (and thereby possibly set up an Iraqi government synchronous with the anti-Western Shiite regime in Iran - but that's a story for another time).
Americans will not long abide their sons and daughters dying for Iraqis insufficiently committed to their own security and fighting for democratic liberties. Soon after the elections the U.S. must reduce force complement and shift the military mission to training Iraqis to police and defend themselves - while Coalition forces serve as ultimate backups for Iraqis as democracy and liberty grow.
In Iraq, the U.S. cannot afford to fail, but current force levels cannot long endure. So the course for President Bush seems clear: Inform (a) Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and (b) Iraq's emerging top pol, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim - publicly - that the time has arrived for them to steer vastly more Shiites into police and military training.
Bush should stress that he wants to see far higher numbers of Shiites in Coalition training within 90 days, because at that time he will begin significantly reducing American force complements currently standing between Iraq's stability and collapse. Iraqi Shiites must get more fully into the security game. An enduring democratic Iraq may depend on it.