President Bush's impending veto of the Democratic bill ordering American combat forces out of Iraq by September 2008, and his demand for the funding of our soldiers without such strings attached, will put the question squarely before the American people: Is this country going to make one final effort (the "surge") to achieve a reasonable success in Iraq, or is it going to put its tail between its legs and leave, abandoning that embattled country to its fate?
It is hard to think of another occasion on which Congress, having moved into control of the opposition party, has tried so openly to shoulder the commander in chief aside and force the abandonment of an ongoing military operation -- indeed, of an entire war. Of course, the Democrats believe that a majority of the American people favor a bug-out now, citing various polls and the narrow Democratic victory in the Congressional elections last November. Even if some of them harbor doubts about this, the left wing of the party is in firm control, and it has forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid to make the left's demand for the abandonment of Iraq the official policy of the party.
In any event, it is difficult to imagine how the Democratic policy can possibly be justified as a rational strategy. If it prevailed, it would amount to an engraved invitation to Al Qaeda and its allies in the current insurgency to continue their current strategy of suicide bombings, seeking to kill as many Americans and Iraqis as possible, and wait patiently for September 2008, when the entire country would be handed over to them by the departing Americans.
Credit President Bush with wanting to avoid that catastrophe if possible. No question about it, the strategy that he and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their military advisers have followed for the past four years has been a failure. It was based on keeping the American military commitment to a minimum and pushing the fledgling Iraqi government to shoulder more and more of the burden of combat itself. This had the merit of being frugal with American lives (total fatalities in Iraq to date are less than 6 percent of those we sustained in Vietnam, and roughly half of those we suffered, on average, every month for 40 months during World War II), but it simply expected far too much of the Iraqi people after 30 years under the heel of Saddam Hussein.
But that was yesterday. Bush has replaced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr. with Gen. David Petraeus. More important, he has replaced the above-described strategy with a new one: a surge in American combat forces, designed to seize and maintain control of Baghdad and the other major centers of armed resistance. Petraeus has expressed his confidence that the new plan has a serious chance of success, and the reinforcements it calls for are already beginning to arrive.
Is this, then, the time to cut and run? I don't believe a majority of the American people think any such thing. Realizing that the Iraq war has been a failure thus far, and ought to be called off if all hope is truly lost, is a far cry from throwing in the towel if there is a serious prospect that a reasonable success can yet be achieved.
It is understandable that the Democrats don't want to see this. It is in their highest partisan interest that our venture in Iraq should be a total debacle, to be blamed entirely on Bush and the Republicans. But the American people as a whole cannot afford to play such petty games. The whole future of the Middle East, with all that means for the West and the world in general, depends on whether it falls into the lap of the Islamist fanatics. If we abandon that whole region to them, they will sense that they are winning and we will soon see them again -- but this time closer to home.
Bush is calling on the American people to support one more major effort in Iraq. It is not his fate alone that is at stake. It is our own.