For Bush, Sticking With His Iraq Policy Now Is the Only Choice

by Stuart Rothenberg May 24, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Democrats and even more than a few Republicans seem increasingly frustrated that President Bush hasn’t been persuaded by their arguments or by the midterm election results to change policy in Iraq. They shouldn’t be. The president has little alternative but to dig in, given both his view of the conflict and how history may judge his presidency.

History has a way of turning failed presidencies into well-regarded ex-presidents. Richard Nixon left office in disgrace but came to be viewed as an authority on international and security issues after his resignation. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was widely seen as disastrous, and voters denied him a second term, yet he is now treated as an authority on a range of domestic and international issues and often evaluates Bush’s performance.

Bush’s chances of having his reputation improve years or even decades after he leaves office almost certainly depends on what ultimately happens in Iraq. If things turn out surprisingly well, historians may actually look back and conclude that Bush did the right thing by ignoring public opinion and Democratic critics.

If, on the other hand, Iraq experiences years of civil strife and Iran fills the region’s vacuum, spreading its venom throughout the Middle East and giving sanctuary to terrorism, Bush will be judged as the person most responsible for that outcome.

Given that, and given the way Bush now views the situation in Iraq and the costs of failure, he cannot possibly agree to remove U.S. forces as quickly as his critics would like. Withdrawal would guarantee “defeat,” as the president sees it, thereby establishing the error of his policy and the failure of his administration.

If the president did what his critics (as well as some of his friends within the GOP) want, his reputation would be permanently set. His only legacy would be the mess in Iraq and the United States’ failures. Even if things improved in the region 10 years down the road, Bush would get no credit for it.

And let’s be entirely clear: Bush wouldn’t get any credit for pulling troops out at this point. Nobody really thinks the president’s overall reputation would improve after being forced, kicking and screaming, to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, do they?

If all of this is even close to correct, it suggests that opponents of current U.S. policy won’t have an effect on Bush administration policy as long as they are merely demanding an exit or talking about U.S. sacrifice.

The only way to influence policy is to demonstrate to Bush that his long-term goal of a peaceful, stable and free Iraq — which would be good both for the Middle East and for his historical reputation — can be achieved only if Republicans hold onto the White House, and that continued Republican control of the White House is impossible, absolutely impossible, without some withdrawal of U.S. forces within the next few months.

This argument isn’t about Republicans regaining the House or avoiding a bloodbath in next year’s Congressional elections. I’m pretty certain the president would prefer Republicans to hold their own in the 2008 House and Senate elections, but if the president sees the choice as between stopping terrorism and re-electing Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula (R) to his House seat, I’m pretty sure we all know which Bush would choose.

If the president was to conclude that a Democratic victory in 2008, including the presidency, would assure a more abrupt exit from Iraq than he thinks is wise — the kind of exit, to the president’s thinking, that would doom Iraq and give “victory” to radicals — then he might see holding the White House in 2008 as part of the Iraq War and the larger war against terror.

The key for critics of Bush’s Iraq policy — at least those who are more interested in changing policy than in scoring political points by beating up on a president who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t much care how many and how often his critics beat up on him — is to get the president to believe that his ultimate goal depends on electing a Republican to succeed him and to believe that a significant change in policy can help accomplish that.

Regardless of how you feel about the president’s Iraq policy, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the president isn’t easily persuaded to change his course. He has his entire presidency and his historical reputation invested in Iraq and regards that war as a fight against terror and for peace. Given that, the loss of a few more House or Senate seats and even the loss of the White House aren’t all that important.