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Declare Victory and Get Out of the Way

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON--President Bush says it's not true, but recent events related to Iraq indicate the administration is leaning toward the George Aiken option: Declare victory and come home.

Aiken is the late Republican senator from Vermont who is credited with offering that advice early in the Vietnam War. It could have saved us Americans and the Vietnamese a lot of grief.

A number of observers in recent years, including your humble column-scrivener, have suggested a similar answer to our worsening, no-win situation in Iraq. The White House has not listened and the Iraq debacle has gotten worse. Iraq has sunk deeper into what looks like a civil war and the Bush administration has sunk deeper into denial.

But recent events indicate that, despite Bush's mantra about "staying the course" in Iraq, he's looking for an exit strategy.

Former Secretary of State James Baker, a savvy negotiator and reliable Bush family friend, has reemerged as the Republican co-chairman with former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. With the administration's support, the study group was created at the urging of Congress last March to reassess the war and come up with suggestions.

Baker and Hamilton say the group is withholding its report until after the November elections. But Baker's remarks in recent interviews offer important hints.

For example, Baker teased our curiosity in an ABC-TV interview last Sunday (Oct. 15) with this: "I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives -- the ones that are out there in the political debate -- of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,'"

Amid the cacophony of Washington's polarized shouting matches, Baker's words sounded like the voice of reason that Americans took for granted in the years of President George H.W. Bush. Baker stood with the elder Bush against those who wanted the U.S. to invade Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, in defiance of the United Nations mandate. The regional instability that Baker feared from such an invasion has happened with today's Iraq war.

Obviously, the younger Bush should have listened to Baker's advice before embarking on his Iraq adventure. Instead, he went along in the heat of post-Sept. 11 passions with Vice President Cheney and other eager neo-conservatives who thought American soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy.

Author-journalist Bob Woodward and other close observers say the younger Bush steadfastly avoids turning to his dad for advice, for reasons all his own, despite his father's superior international expertise. Yet, despite the younger Bush's often-repeated vow to "stay the course" against those who want to "cut and run," he also says he is willing to "change tactics" in Iraq if the Baker-Hamilton group recommends it.

If so, the Baker group could offer cover for the younger Bush to do something he is loathe to do in public: change his mind.

His promise to "stay the course" in Iraq until "the job gets done" could undergo subtle alteration. If Baker's group defines a new "job" for America in Iraq, it could "get done" in whatever way the president says it should. Americans could declare victory and come home.

But what next? If Bush's softened stance offers a light at the end of Iraq's long, dark tunnel, to borrow a Vietnam-era metaphor, let us hope the light is not that of an oncoming train.

In interviews, Baker has rejected a quick withdrawal from Iraq, fearing "the biggest civil war you've ever seen." Unfortunately, the mounting casualties amid factional fighting indicate Iraq already has a civil war and it's growing.

In fact, Iraq's best direction may come through a partitioning of the country between its dominant Suni, Shiite and Kurdish ethnic factions. President Bush rejected that option this week in expressing his support for Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But that's just as well. An American endorsement of partitioning probably would doom its acceptance by Iraqis and their regional neighbors. If Iraq is to be partitioned, responsible Iraqi leaders will have to work that out.

Baker is right to say that Americans cannot be the sole deciders of Iraq's future. There are no perfect or peaceful solutions for Iraq in the short term. There are more hard days to come. But, whether in war or in peace, Iraq's future ultimately must be decided by Iraqis. As that happens, the best thing that Americans can do is to declare victory and get out of the way.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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