Finding New Ways To Confront Old Woes

The other side holds no elections. No one in Al Qaeda has called for a timetable whereby they would begin to stop blowing up Iraqis and crusaders. No one in Iran has proposed a bipartisan commission to re-examine the country’s nuclear program, or its war on Jews. So every problem we had on the first Monday of November we will still have for every foreseeable day.

We will have to deal with them differently, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Bush administration can’t write any more checks. It was clear that some shift, at least at the level of tactics, was desirable; now it has become inescapable. Thumpin’ concentrates the mind.

Some of the victorious Democrats have a clear idea of what that shift should be. George McGovern will be meeting with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of some 60 left-wing representatives, to discuss how to bring all American troops home from Iraq by June. Mr. McGovern famously lost his Presidential run in 1972, during the Vietnam War, but his advice to come home, America, was taken less than three years later; as a result, Arlington filled with restaurants and Cambodia filled with skulls.

Most Democrats, while they are happy to profit from the modern antiwar movement, do not want to be defined by it. Hence the popularity of military men and women in their ranks. Wesley Clark did not win the nomination in 2004, but he did better than Dennis Kucinich. John Kerry, who did win, ran with a salute. Some of the party’s brightest winners last week—James Webb, Tammy Duckworth—are veterans. Joe Lieberman is no vet, but he ended up beating Ned Lamont, the bug-out millionaire who beat him in the August primary.

If these Democrats and a chastened commander in chief could agree on an Iraq strategy, it would probably be 20 months of counterinsurgency, then call it a day. The G.O.P. would not want to run on an Iraq war in 2008, and the Democrats would not want to deal with one if they won the White House. The idea of handing Iraq off to a toughened, savvy Iraqi Army sounds good, could work and was the goal, even of the hated Donald Rumsfeld, all along. Perhaps the United States would keep a base in Kurdistan, the place we are popular, to project power on an as-needed basis. The weakness of such a plan is that, to the extent it is driven by a deadline, the terrorists, who have calendars too, will prepare for the day of the jubilee when they divvy up the country—Al Qaeda–stan for the Sunni Arab terrorists, Sadr-stan for their Shiite opposite numbers. In that scenario, the Kurds and any troops we leave among them would be sitting ducks.

But there is also the possibility of bigger deals, which might make the pill go down more smoothly. The politician who has been in the wilderness longer than Nancy Pelosi, and who is even hungrier for power, is James Baker. He has been coming up in the rear-view mirror for months now, as co-chair, along with former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton, of the Congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group; President Bush met with him and his fellow students Monday. “There is urgent need,” the Iraq Study Group’s Web site says, “for a bipartisan, forward-looking assessment of the situation in Iraq.” By “bipartisan,” the Web site means that the Iraq Study Group consists of Republicans and Democrats, but it is bipartisan in a deeper sense: It will advise the second Bush administration, from the point of view of the first.

The big deal that Mr. Baker has been working for appears to have three elements. He wants a sit-down between the United States, on the one hand, and Iran and Syria, on the other. Since Iran and Syria are the primary enablers of bloodshed in Iraq, it would indeed be an excellent thing if we could get them to back off. They have no incentive to abandon their schemes, however, unless a second thing happens—persuading Europe, Russia and China to support punitive sanctions on the Iranians. If these measures fail, Mr. Baker’s fallback would likely be the regional strategy of the first Bush administration: a Sunni alliance against the Iranian menace. The shield of that alliance in the old days was, of course, Saddam Hussein. Since he is gone, we would have to muddle along as best we could.

The new direction, if I foresee it correctly, has a number of obvious problems. It assumes that enough important Iranians are motivated by the ordinary calculus of profit and loss. The worst thing in the world, wrote Thomas Hobbes, is “continual fear and danger of violent death.” Many Iranian leaders these days certainly agree; they have the sleek look of clerical hucksters. But what about the true believers, including President Ahmadinejad, who hope to live in paradise with the 12th imam, with whom they commune even now? If Iran can be pressured, why should Russia or China help pressure it? They are perfectly happy to leave the problem in our laps. (Europe, in theory, might be equally happy to leave it there, but must consider that it is within range of Iranian missiles.) Idealism, finally, would fall into the wastebasket of old inaugural addresses. The notion that the Middle Eastern public could be offered ordered liberty as an alternative to despots or mullahs would give way to our old assurance that brown people neither deserve nor desire it. Sinful to speak of ideals when soldiers die. But the deaths will come, in Iraq or Manhattan, whether we are idealistic or not.

Whatever Mr. Baker advises, Congress commands or Mr. Bush does, this administration can look forward to one more solid accomplishment: Saddam, judged by his peers, swinging from a rope. Let it be seen, by subjects and their masters, throughout the Middle East. It will be a marker for the long war, even if we lay down no others in the next two years.