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Why Bush Will Be A Winner
Not necessarily. First of all, we would have to compare the situation in Iraq now, with all its difficulties and all the administration's mistakes, with what it would be if we hadn't gone in. Saddam Hussein would be alive and in power and, I dare say, victorious, with the United States (and the United Nations) by now having backed off sanctions and the no-fly zone. He might well have restarted his nuclear program, and his connections with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups would be intact or revived and even strengthened.
Still, that's speculative, and the losses and costs of the war are real. Bush is a war president, and war presidents are judged by whether they win or lose their war. So to be a successful president, Bush has to win in Iraq.
Which I now think we can. Indeed, I think we will. In late 2006, I didn't think we would win, as Bush stuck with the failed Rumsfeld-Abizaid-Casey strategy of "standing down" as the Iraqis were able to "stand up," based on the mistaken theory that if we had a "small footprint" in Iraq, we'd be more successful. With the new counterinsurgency strategy announced on Jan. 10, backed up by the troop "surge," I think the odds are finally better than 50-50 that we will prevail. We are routing al-Qaeda in Iraq, we are beginning to curb the Iranian-backed sectarian Shiite militias and we are increasingly able to protect more of the Iraqi population.
If we sustain the surge for a year and continue to train Iraqi troops effectively, we can probably begin to draw down in mid- to late 2008. The fact is that military progress on the ground in Iraq in the past few months has been greater than even surge proponents like me expected, and political progress is beginning to follow. Iran is a problem, and we will have to do more to curb Tehran's meddling -- but we can. So if we keep our nerve here at home, we have a good shot at achieving a real, though messy, victory in Iraq.
But can Bush maintain adequate support at home? Yes. It would help if the administration would make its case more effectively and less apologetically. It would help if Bush had more aides who believed in his policy, who understood that the war is winnable and who didn't desperately want to get back in (or stay in) the good graces of the foreign policy establishment.
But Bush has the good fortune of having finally found his Ulysses S. Grant, or his Creighton Abrams, in Gen. David H. Petraeus. If the president stands with Petraeus and progress continues on the ground, Bush will be able to prevent a sellout in Washington. And then he could leave office with the nation on course to a successful (though painful and difficult) outcome in Iraq. With that, the rest of the Middle East, where so much hangs in the balance, could start to tip in the direction of our friends and away from the jihadists, the mullahs and the dictators.
Following through to secure the victory in Iraq and to extend its benefits to neighboring countries will be the task of the next president. And that brings us to Bush's final test.
The truly successful American presidents tend to find vindication in, and guarantee an extension of their policies through, the election of a successor from their own party. Can Bush hand the presidency off to a Republican who will (broadly) continue along the path of his post-9/11 foreign policy, nominate judges who solidify a Roberts-Alito court, make his tax cuts permanent and the like?
Sure. Even at Bush's current low point in popularity, the leading GOP presidential candidates are competitive in the polls with Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Furthermore, one great advantage of the current partisan squabbling in Washington is that while it hurts Bush, it also damages the popularity of the Democratic Congress-- where both Clinton and Obama serve. A little mutual assured destruction between the Bush administration and Congress could leave the Republican nominee, who will most likely have no affiliation with either, in decent shape.
And what happens when voters realize in November 2008 that, if they choose a Democrat for president, they'll also get a Democratic Congress and therefore liberal Supreme Court justices? Many Americans will recoil from the prospect of being governed by an unchecked triumvirate of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. So the chances of a Republican winning the presidency in 2008 aren't bad.
What it comes down to is this: If Petraeus succeeds in Iraq, and a Republican wins in 2008, Bush will be viewed as a successful president.
I like the odds.
William Kristol is the editor of the Weekly Standard.