Don’t play chicken

Don't play chicken
It's hard to imagine there would come a time when we'd actually miss the Nixon presidency.

But after President Bush's display from the Rose Garden earlier this week, one can't help but feel a longing for a time in American politics when the executive branch was at least making a concerted effort at diplomacy around the globe, and especially in trouble spots.

Henry Kissinger was Nixon's secretary of state in the 1970s, and he spent so much time flying from place to place that the media labeled him a "globetrotter."

Were Nixon and Kissinger successful? History replies with a mixed signal. Nixon's foreign policy, like his presidency, was transitional. The Nixon-Kissinger globetrotting summitry, however, produced solid achievements. Remember that famous quote from Kissinger regarding Vietnam? "Peace is at hand."

One also must remember that even though the Cold War was still being waged, Nixon and Kissinger were successfully brokering wheat deals with the Soviet Union and, of all things, establishing new relationships with China.

Nixon, with the help of Kissinger and others, at least realized that reducing a nation's foreign policy to a grandiose "game of chicken" will likely always be counterproductive.

Earlier this week, Bush made it clear that he likes to play this game, more or less daring Democrats to pass a bill that puts a time and funding limit on our military involvement in Iraq, so that he can, in turn, veto it.

It's not just Bush who is mistaken when it comes to Iraq, however. The Democrats' problem is that they seem determined to join the Bush administration in doubling down bad bets on Iraq. In the Democrats' case, the mistaken gamble is that by imposing a Washington timetable for troop withdrawal, America will compel good behavior from the fratricidal Iraqis.

That idea is naive. But then, so is the Bush administration's politically divisive strategy for an open-ended troop surge in Baghdad.

No matter how clever Gen. David Petraeus's battle plan is, it won't work unless it can be sustained politically, in Baghdad and Washington. The crucial asset for Petraeus is time, which in turn is a function of political consensus at home. And that asset is wasting, even as the number of U.S. troops goes up.

It's time for Bush and Congress to focus on the findings of a report written by former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, notes that four months after its release, the Baker-Hamilton report still looks like the best way to unite Democrats and Republicans before there is a dangerous collision over funding for the war.

The report has something for everyone: It shares the Democrats' goal of withdrawing most U.S. troops by March 2008 and stresses the need for milestones in Iraq. But it endorses the Bush administration's view that milestones should be jointly negotiated with the Iraqi government, rather than imposed by Washington.

And it recognizes that troop withdrawals must be contingent on political and military conditions on the ground.

The Baker-Hamilton report focused on the need for a sustainable policy – one that would make Iraq an American project rather than George W. Bush's war. That requires a shift in military strategy from U.S. combat operations to a counterinsurgency approach centered on training and advising the Iraqi military. But the study group, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, also said it could "support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission."

Ignatius writes: The Baker-Hamilton report offered a way out of the partisan wilderness when it was released in December. It still does. It provides an Iraq platform on which responsible Republicans and Democrats can gather. Neither side will get everything it wants, but both can claim a measure of support for their positions. That's the essence of building consensus.

A train-wreck debate on Iraq will be destructive for both parties, not to mention the people in the Middle East. The Baker-Hamilton report is the best framework for building a policy that is sustainable, in Washington and in Baghdad. Leading Republicans and Democrats say that, in principle, they still support Baker-Hamilton. So do something about it.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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