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President Has Been Unwavering in Defense of His Iraq War Policy

By Tom Bevan

As America stood on the verge of war with France in the late spring of 1798, Abigail Adams, the wife of President John Adams, penned a letter to Cotton Tufts describing her husband's resolve in dealing with the French. "Poor wretches," she wrote, "I suppose they want him to cringe, but he is made of oak instead of willow. He may be torn up by the roots, or break, but he will never bend."

Some 208 years later, Mrs. Adams would seem to have provided a description of our current president in dealing with the situation in Iraq.

For the last 3½ years President Bush has been as sturdy as an oak in his defense of Iraq. Even though the difficulty of the war has humbled him over time ("Bring It On" and "Mission Accomplished" are two phrases that will forever be a source of embarrassment associated with Bush and Iraq) and even though the president acknowledged public frustration with the lack of progress in Iraq by firing his secretary of defense after the November election, Bush's belief in the consequences of winning or losing the war has not changed.

So it's no surprise the president gave a chilly reception to the report last week by the Iraq Study Group, the thrust of which was a recommendation by the bipartisan panel that Bush turn into a willow on Iraq and start bending immediately: Enlist the help of Iran and Syria to stabilize Iraq, and begin the process of drawing down U.S. troops.

Given what we know of this president, neither of these things is likely to happen.

On Monday, Bush met in the Oval Office with five military experts to get their views on Iraq. According to the Washington Post, while the experts confirmed the view that the situation is "dire," they rejected the ISG's two major recommendations to reduce the number of troops in Iraq and to engage with Iran and Syria -- making it all but certain Bush will reject them as well.

Later the same day, the president emerged from a separate briefing on Iraq with senior officials in the State Department and said, "This is really the calling of our time, that is, to defeat these extremists and radicals, and Iraq is a component part, an important part of laying the foundation for peace." That sounds a lot like Bush the Oak, not Bush the Willow.

Nevertheless, with a host of national polls released this week showing public support for the war in Iraq at an all-time low, Bush understands that the situation is critical. He knows that if he doesn't demonstrate at least some degree of flexibility (or at least the appearance of flexibility) his presidency may indeed be uprooted by the conflict.

So Bush has promised to take all the various recommendations of the past two weeks under advisement and address the country sometime early next year laying out a "new way forward" in Iraq. What this "new way" will look like is anyone's guess. The obvious problem is that if it's not going to include a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal or a change of diplomatic course, it's hard to see the "new way" looking much different from the "old way."

One notable irony of the last two weeks is that despite the length of the long-awaited ISG report, the group's recommendations mostly served to highlight just how few realistic options we have available to deal with the difficult situation in Iraq. If the choice, as Bush often phrases it, isn't as stark as "stand and fight" vs. "cut and run," then it's pretty darn close.

And if you believe that success in Iraq is both vital to America's interests and still possible, that only reinforces the importance having the resolve to see the mission through. Abraham Lincoln had it. Churchill, too. The point, to extend the original metaphor of Abigail Adams, is that bending willows don't win wars. Sturdy oaks do.

Only time will tell how Iraq will be viewed by history. Depending on the final outcome, it may ultimately be seen as one of the great virtues -- or one of the great flaws -- of Bush's presidency. Certainly one short-term consequence of Bush's willingness to plow forward in Iraq is that the war will once again be the central, and perhaps defining issue of the next presidential election -- which is a subject best left to a future column.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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