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The Odd Years War

By Robert Tracinski

Last week, The Times of London carried excerpts from an interview with President Bush conducted on Air Force One as it returned from Bush's farewell trip to Europe. The article, with the eye-catching title "President Bush Regrets His Legacy as Man Who Wanted War," is written to make Bush sound like a broken man, chastened into a dovish outlook by his failures in Iraq. This is somewhat exaggerated and misleading-but the article does make one thing clear, if it wasn't clear already: there will be no military action against Iran during the remainder of Bush's term in office.

That fits the unfortunate pattern of the War on Terrorism so far. You see, we can't take any bold new action now, because this isn't an odd-numbered year.

Here is the relevant passage from the article:

President Bush has admitted to The Times that his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe that he was a "guy really anxious for war" in Iraq. He said that his aim now was to leave his successor a legacy of international diplomacy for tackling Iran.

In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric."

Phrases such as "bring them on" or "dead or alive," he said, "indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace.".

The unilateralism that marked his first White House term has been replaced by an enthusiasm for tough multilateralism. He said that his focus for his final six months in office was to secure agreement on issues such as establishing a Palestinian state and to "leave behind a series of structures that makes it easier for the next president".

Like I said, this is somewhat exaggerated. Another version> of the article provides fuller quotes and more context, and Bush comes off sounding much less defeated. (For example, the authors report that "The demonstrations that usually gather everywhere to protest at his presence do not bother him, but make him think that 'I must be doing something. I must be using my position to embrace change.'") And all of Bush's "dovish" talk about multilateralism and diplomacy is not as new and different as the authors make it out to be. Unfortunately, that has been a major element of Bush's policy all along.

But the line that is somewhat new and ought to draw our attention is Bush's statement that the goal for the remainder of his administration is to establish the use of diplomacy and sanctions to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. (His visit to Europe produced the latest round of economic sanctions against Iran.) This is what Bush has been doing since 2006, and the Times interview makes it official. Bush has effectively taken military action "off the table" as an option for stopping Iran before January of 2009.

This fits in with the odd character of the War on Terrorism. It is the Odd Years War. The reason we are making progress so slowly, and in such fits and starts, is that this war has been fought only in the odd-numbered years. On the tactical level, actual fighting is still going on in the even-numbered years; ask any of the troops deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2004 and 2006. But on the strategic level, there have been no vigorous new initiatives in the even-numbered years. Instead, each time there has been a noticeable stalling of strategic momentum.

Look at history of the war so far.

In 2001, we toppled the Taliban, removed al-Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan, and killed or captured many of al-Qaeda's leaders and foot soldiers. By contrast, we spent 2002 dithering at the UN over whether or not to go to war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

In 2003, we invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, which produced dividends when Libya's Moammar Khadafi folded up his WMD program, exposing the nuclear smuggling ring run by A.Q. Khan. In 2004, by contrast, the US was caught flat-footed by the eruption of Sunni and Shiite insurgencies in Iraq. We fell back before the Sunni uprising in Anbar, while we fought the Shiite Mahdi Army to an inconclusive stand-still.

Starting in late 2004, but mostly in 2005, we began to reverse these defeats, retaking Fallujah, securing the Iraqi election, and undertaking our first successful experiments with a genuine counter-insurgency strategy against the Sunnis in Western Iraq. We also enjoyed the benefits of these actions when the Iraqi election emboldened the Lebanese to rise up against Syrian control.

In 2006, by contrast, the US was again caught unprepared when Sunni and Shiite insurgents fomented a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Meanwhile, Hamas gained power in the Palestinian election, Israel failed in the prosecution of its war against Hezbollah, the Bush administration caved in to European appeasement of Iran, and Pervez Musharraf negotiated a disastrous peace deal with the Taliban in Pakistan, re-establishing a safe haven for al-Qaeda. It was a very bad year.

In 2007, fortunately, Bush made a bold decision that reversed some of this disastrous momentum. He ordered the "surge," which was met by the "Anbar Awakening," precipitating the collapse of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In 2008, by contrast, we sat back and did nothing while Hezbollah took over the Lebanese government. The only really good thing that has happened this year-and it is a very big thing-happened because someone else finally followed up and matched our action with vigorous action of their own. The Iraqi government's offensive against the Mahdi Army has begun to shut down the last remaining wing of the Iraqi insurgency.

What this history suggests is that if we and our allies could finally put two good years together back-to-back-two years of bold and vigorous new action, as Bush and Prime Minister Maliki have done in Iraq-then we could finally achieve really rapid progress.

What we need, in short, is an Even Year's War.

So why can't we do it? The Bush interview indicates a pattern that by now should be familiar. Despite his reputation as a "bellicose" cowboy, Bush actually shows an entrenched reluctance to challenge conventional ideas. He embraces a few radical notions, such as unilateral preemption, then tries to combine them with the conventional wisdom of the State Department "realists."

So he invokes unilateral preemption against Saddam Hussein's regime-but he also goes through the motions of showing deference to UN resolutions. He says that you're either with us or you're with the terrorists-unless those terrorists are Palestinian, in which case we have to be even-handed and not take sides. He calls for a Forward Strategy of Freedom to "end tyranny in the world"-then seeks a diplomatic "grand bargain" with the tyrants in Tehran.

All of this is merely exacerbated by a wider and deeper internal conflict within the US, between those who recognize that jihadists are waging war against us and we have to defeat them-versus those who regard the US as guilty because it is too powerful and self-assertive.

The stop-and-start, even-year-odd-year stuttersteps of the War on Terrorism are a reflection of this internal conflict.

To be able to mount an Even Year's War that would achieve a final, lasting breakthrough in the War On Terrorism, we're going to have to attempt to fix the ideological contradictions that undermine our certainty and hobble our action.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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