History repeats itself in strange ways. Consider two statements.
"A slogan like 'stay the course' is unacceptable."
And: "Stay the course is not a policy."
The first quotation goes back to October 1982, when a Republican candidate for governor of New York named Lewis Lehrman complained about his party's national slogan during that year's midterm elections. Stay the course, insisted Lehrman, who eventually lost narrowly to Democrat Mario Cuomo, was a lousy theme in the face of a 10 percent national unemployment rate.
The second quotation is of more recent, though still Republican, coinage. Last Sunday, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska laid into the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Hagel insisted that remaining in Iraq over an extended period -- staying the course -- "would bog us down, it would further destabilize the Middle East, it would give Iran more influence."
President Bush continues to insist, at least in public, on doing what he's doing. "We will stay, we will fight and we will win the war on terror," Bush said in Idaho on Wednesday. But staying and fighting in Iraq looks increasingly antithetical to winning the war on terrorism. What is a superpower whose power has been dissipated by a deeply flawed policy to do?
There was an electrifying moment here last week when a longtime friend of the United States spoke up during a meeting of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, a group I've been part of for several years. Kim Beazley, the leader of the Australian Labor Party and a former defense minister, proposed an alternative that would admit the errors of the past by way of salvaging America's influence for the future.
Beazley, who elaborated on his off-the record address in an interview, argued that the war in Iraq, like the Vietnam War 35 years ago, was "sucking the oxygen out of American foreign policy." The United States, he said, needed to engage in "a phased extraction" from Iraq while bolstering the war on terrorism elsewhere. He used the unlikely role model of Richard Nixon, who gradually withdrew American forces from Vietnam while engaging China and forcing the Soviet Union into arms negotiations.
Beazley's metaphor was an arresting way of showing how mistakes in Iraq need not permanently dent the United States' influence -- provided America recognizes its mistakes.
Beazley proposed the redeployment of American forces to Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran on the road to departure. At the same time, Washington needs to "refocus attention on Afghanistan," particularly the border areas with Pakistan, where he sees the real war on terrorism being waged. And the United States must turn its attention to the Iraq war's perverse effect, which has been to "advance Iranian power."
"It's repositioning," says Beazley. "It's keeping a sense of proportion in America's engagements. You're not going to let the United States get bogged down in a disproportionate engagement of its forces in Iraq. In both the context of the global war on terror, and its other global commitments, the U.S. has more fish to fry than Iraq. And no matter what it says, it can only have a limited effect on Iraqi political outcomes. Ultimately, Iraqis will have to do the deals."
While I will admit to a personal bias in Beazley's favor -- he has been a friend for more than three decades -- the fact is that his comments seized the attention of all the Americans in the room. Here was someone willing to lay out an alternative strategy aimed at freeing the United States from an all-consuming mess in a way that could leave its influence intact. "You have to win, you know," said Beazley. "You cannot lose the war on terror."
To pursue anything like the Beazley strategy, Bush would have to admit that his policy hasn't worked -- to himself, if not to the public. Could Bush's willingness to embrace the flawed Iraqi draft constitution be a signal that the president is radically scaling down his expectations (and ours) in preparation for the "repositioning" that Beazley describes?
It's hard for any president, especially this one, to acknowledge mistakes. But recall that reference to those long-ago midterm elections. Republicans know in their guts what Hagel is willing to say publicly: Iraq is a mess, and staying the current course means a disaster abroad that could turn into political disaster at home. Don't be surprised if more Republicans start echoing a politician from Down Under.