As George Bush said in his victory speech, "a new term is a new opportunity." Unfortunately, it will begin with the same old wretched problem of Iraq.
I hope the president will take time to ponder the Iraq conundrum anew, now that he has won the freedom to craft a true strategy rather than a slogan. His "stay the course" rhetoric may have energized the Republican base, but it didn't answer the question of the typical soldier on the ground: How do we win this thing, and, if we can't, how do we get out?
The irony is that Bush can make bold decisions about Iraq now in a way that a victorious John Kerry could not have done. It's the Nixon-to-China phenomenon. Bush doesn't have to prove he's tough on Iraq. His only obligation is to do what makes sense. But what is that, exactly?
Iraq has become a Catch-22: The definition of victory is a stable Iraqi government that can maintain security without depending on U.S. troops. But a viable Iraqi government, again almost by definition, will be one that can claim it ended the U.S. occupation and restored Iraq's dignity and independence.
Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, is caught in this double bind. The more he depends on U.S. help, the less legitimate he appears in Iraqi eyes. For that reason, Allawi has been pushing to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces -- especially two armored divisions he thinks are crucial. I'm told the Iraqi leader was so upset about this issue that when Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad last month, Allawi briefly suggested he might not run in January's elections.
After a strong start last summer, Allawi knows he is losing the confidence of Iraqis. In a poll completed a month ago, the percentage of Iraqis who said the interim government was effective had fallen to 43 percent, compared with 63 percent in July. A frustrated Allawi sent a letter to Bush in October complaining that the training of Iraqi forces wouldn't be completed until well after the elections scheduled in late January, "which is simply too late," according to excerpts published in the New Yorker.
The locus of the Iraqi Catch-22 is the city of Fallujah. In addition to being the center of the anti-American insurgency, it's a symbol of Sunni Muslims' resistance to what they fear will be future domination by Iraq's Shiite majority. Fallujah may be the decisive battle of the war, but it's an especially delicate one. An American-led "victory" that razes the city could further alienate the Sunnis and poison the chances for political reconciliation. That's why Allawi wants the armored units so badly -- so that Iraqi tanks can lead the way into Fallujah and make it look less like an American operation.
U.S. Marines, joined by about 4,000 Iraqi troops, are poised to attack the city. U.S. commanders in Baghdad believe the troops are ready to roll, but the attack isn't likely until after Ramadan ends in about 10 days. Allawi and the Americans will probably make a last effort at negotiation; they know military victory in Fallujah might come at the cost of political defeat.
So what's the right course now in Iraq? As is so often the case in the Middle East, the trick is riding two horses at once. America must keep faith with the Shiite majority, which rightly expects to play a decisive role after decades of oppression. But at the same time, the United States must reassure Sunnis that they have a place in the new Iraq.
Allawi and his American advisers sensibly have been reaching out to Sunni leaders; Jordan, with U.S. support, will be hosting a quiet gathering of Iraqi Sunnis next week. The Sunnis may account for only 20 percent of the population, but if they aren't included in writing Iraq's new constitution, the violence will continue. Thus administration officials should give up their hope that they can rely on Iraq's other two ethnic groups, the Kurds and Shiites, to make January's elections a success.
The key to stability is regaining the support of Iraq's silent majority -- the long-suffering, secular-minded Sunnis and Shiites referred to by some U.S. and British intelligence analysts as the POIs, which is short for "pissed-off Iraqis." These POIs are angry at American occupation, and they want it to end.
So here's my recommendation for President Bush: He should announce that when a new Iraqi government is elected, he is prepared to negotiate the terms and timetable of American withdrawal. If handled wisely, that approach would be an American victory, and an Iraqi victory, as well.