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When Resolve Turns Reckless

By John F. Kerry
Sunday, December 24, 2006; B01

There's something much worse than being accused of "flip-flopping": refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop.

I say this to President Bush as someone who learned the hard way how embracing the world's complexity can be twisted into a crude political shorthand. Barbed words can make for great politics. But with U.S. troops in Iraq in the middle of an escalating civil war, this is no time for politics. Refusing to change course for fear of the political fallout is not only dangerous -- it is immoral.

I'd rather explain a change of position any day than look a parent in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter had to die so that a broken policy could live.

No one should be looking for vindication in what is happening in Iraq today. The lesson here is not that some of us were right about Iraq or that some of us were wrong. The lesson is simply that we need to change course rapidly rather than perversely use mistakes already made and lives already given as an excuse to make more mistakes and lose even more lives.

When young Americans are being killed and maimed, when the Middle East is on the brink of three civil wars, even the most vaunted "steadfastness" morphs pretty quickly into stubbornness, and resolve becomes recklessness. Changing tactics in the face of changing conditions on the ground, developing new strategies because the old ones don't work, is a hell of a lot smarter than the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again with the same tragic results.

Half of the service members listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial died after America's leaders knew that our strategy in that war was not working. Was then-secretary of defense Robert McNamara steadfast as he continued to send American troops to die for a war he knew privately could not be won? History does not remember his resolve -- it remembers his refusal to confront reality.

Clark Clifford, the man who succeeded McNamara in 1968, was handpicked by President Lyndon B. Johnson because he was a renowned hawk. But the new defense secretary reviewed the Vietnam policy and concluded that "we cannot realistically expect to achieve anything more through our military force, and the time has come to begin to disengage." By the time he left office, he had refused to endorse a further military buildup, supported the halt in our bombing, and urged negotiation and gradual disengagement. Was Clifford a flip-flopper of historic proportions, or did he in fact demonstrate the courage of his convictions?

We cannot afford to waste time being told that admitting mistakes, not the mistakes themselves, will provide our enemies with an intolerable propaganda victory. We've already lost years being told that we have no choice but to stay the course of a failed policy.

This isn't a time for stubbornness, nor is it a time for halfway solutions -- or warmed-over "new" solutions that our own experience tells us will only make the problem worse. The Iraq Study Group tells us that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." It joins the chorus of experts in and outside of Baghdad reminding us that there is no military solution to a political crisis. And yet, over the warnings of former secretary of state Colin Powell, Gen. John Abizaid and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington is considering a "troop buildup" option, sending more troops into harm's way to referee a civil war.

We have already tried a trimmed-down version of the McCain plan of indefinitely increasing troop levels. We sent 15,000 more troops to Baghdad last summer, and today the escalating civil war is even worse. You could put 100,000 more troops in tomorrow and you're only going to add to the number of casualties until Iraqis sit down together at a bargaining table and compromise. The barrel of a gun can't answer the question of how you force Iraqi nationalism to trump sectarian loyalty.

The only hope for stability lies in pushing Iraqis to forge a sustainable political agreement on federalism, distributing oil revenues and neutralizing sectarian militias. And that will happen only if we set a deadline to redeploy our troops.

Last May, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad gave the new Iraqi government six months to make the necessary political compromises. But a deadline with no teeth is only lip service. How many times do we have to see that Iraqi politicians respond only to firm, specific deadlines -- a deadline to transfer authority, deadlines to hold two elections and a referendum, and a deadline to form a government -- before we understand that it's time to make it clear that we are leaving and that we will not sacrifice American lives for the sake of squabbling Iraqi politicians?

Another case where steadfastness long ago gave way to stubbornness is our approach to Iraq's neighbors. Last week in Damascus, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and I met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. We were clear about U.S. expectations for change in his regime's policies, but we found potential for cooperation with Syria in averting a disaster in Iraq -- potential that should be put to the test. Washington can't remain on the sidelines, stubbornly clinging to a belief that talking to our enemies rewards hostile regimes.

Conversation is not capitulation. Until recently, it was widely accepted that good foreign policy demands a willingness to seize opportunities and change policy as the facts change. That's neither flip-flopping nor rudderless diplomacy -- it's strength.

How else could we end up with the famous mantra that "only Nixon could go to China"? For decades, Richard Nixon built his reputation as a China hawk. In 1960, he took John Kennedy to task for being soft on China. He called isolating China a "moral position" that "flatly rejected cowardly expediency." Then, when China broke with the Soviet Union during his presidency, he saw an opportunity to weaken our enemies and make Americans safer. His 1972 visit to China was a major U.S. diplomatic victory in the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan was no shape-shifter, either, but after calling the Soviet Union the "evil empire," he met repeatedly with its leaders. When Reagan saw an opportunity for cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev, he reached out and tested our enemies' intentions. History remembers that he backed tough words with tough decisions -- and, yes, that he changed course even as he remained true to his principles.

President Bush and all of us who grew up in the shadows of World War II remember Winston Churchill -- his grit, his daring, his resolve. I remember listening to his speeches on a vinyl album in the pre-iPod era. Two years ago I spoke about Iraq at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where Churchill had drawn a line between freedom and fear in his "iron curtain" speech. In preparation, I reread some of the many words from various addresses that made him famous. Something in one passage caught my eye. When Churchill urged, "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in," he added: "except to convictions of honour and good sense."

This is a time for such convictions.

jk@johnkerry.com

John F. Kerry is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company