Politically and militarily, this is President Bush's last chance to avoid catastrophe in Iraq, and the Democratic Congress ought to let him play out his hand.
Hard as it might be, Democrats should resist extreme pressure from antiwar forces in their base to undermine what little is left of Bush's popular support and force a withdrawal from Iraq.
The reason is that if the United States loses the Iraq War, the consequences will be dire — and a Democratic president elected in 2008 may well have to deal with them.
That president could inherit an Iraq in all-out civil war, regional chaos pitting Sunnis against Shiites and — worst of all — the collapse of American influence and the triumph of radical Islamist forces, Iran in the lead.
Iraq will not be the last theater of combat between radicalism and moderation, but wherever the next confrontation is — in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran or Saudi Arabia — the United States will be at an automatic disadvantage if it loses in Iraq.
It will be all the worse if the United States loses because Osama bin Laden is proved right in saying that the United States lacks the tenacity for any long and difficult struggle.
So, if there is any chance that the Bush administration can succeed in bringing security to the blood-soaked neighborhoods of Baghdad and in suppressing the Sunni insurgency in Anbar province, it ought to be given a last try.
There is certainly no guarantee that Bush's new strategy will work, especially given past failures. In fact, it is easy to list the reasons why we might fail again.
At the top of the list is the inability or unwillingness — so far — of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to stop Shiite death squads from torturing and killing Sunnis and to offer the political concessions necessary to dampen the non-Al Qaeda Sunni insurgency.
Responsible Democrats — those who don't just want to abandon the Iraq enterprise regardless of the consequences — contend that the only way to force al-Maliki to act is to establish a withdrawal timetable.
Bush does not want to do that because it will give notice to America's enemies that they can just wait for U.S. forces to leave to resume a full-force insurgency.
But Bush needs to tell al-Maliki, if he doesn't understand it already, that time is running very short. Administration officials say they think they have until this fall — nine months or so — to show results.
This strikes me as optimistic. The bottom is dropping out of U.S. support for the war — fast. And the pressure is mounting on Democrats to pull the plug. The latest Gallup Poll showed that the public opposes Bush's troop increase by 61 percent to 37 percent. Eighty-five percent of Democrats oppose it.
Only 15 percent favored immediate withdrawal, but 39 percent more wanted U.S. troops out within a year, while only 31 percent supported their staying as long as needed and 12 percent favored adding more troops.
Administration officials say that al-Maliki is aware of what's expected of him — and by when — and that he is working on diminishing the influence of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, controlling his militias and compromising with Sunnis. Everything depends on his acting fast, however.
Another reason to be pessimistic is that, whenever Iraqi forces have been asked to "stand up" to the challenge of securing Baghdad, they've largely failed.
Bush told members of Congress on Tuesday that he believed two previous Baghdad security operations failed, both because the United States had too few troops and because Iraqis could not hold neighborhoods that had been cleared of extremists.
Now, Bush is adding 15,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad and al-Maliki is supposedly supplying an equal number of his best forces, the first of which are to arrive by Feb. 1.
This is do or die. If the operation begins to show promise, it could turn around both Iraqi and U.S. public opinion. But if reports are that Americans are fighting and dying, but Iraqis aren't, demands for withdrawal will become irresistible.
It also remains to be seen whether even U.S. forces can perform this counterinsurgency mission successfully. The new U.S. commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, is an expert on such combat and has a record of success in previous Iraq tours.
The U.S. Army's new counterinsurgency manual, written under Petraeus' supervision, declares that "the military forces that successfully defeat insurgencies are usually those able to overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war" and instead protect and win support from the local populace.
It remains a question whether U.S. units will be numerous enough — and well-trained enough — to perform the mission. It's appropriate for Congress to inquire about that — and make sure training is adequate for counterinsurgency operations in the future. There will be more.
Democrats have every right and responsibility to ask hard questions about Bush's strategy and to advocate alternatives — such as moving U.S. troops out of populated areas to guard Iraq's borders and oil wells, leaving urban combat to the Iraqis.
At the moment, that does not seem to be a viable strategy, given the deficiencies of Iraqi forces, but it could be a transition role when and if the Iraqis can take charge of the cities.
If they can't or won't — and if al-Maliki can't or won't reach accommodation with the Sunnis — the U.S. may have to consider yet another alternative: the "80 percent solution," in which we back the likely winners of a civil war in Iraq, the Shiites and Kurds.
This would not be a desirable conclusion — one advocate calls it "winning dirty" — but it may be the only alternative to losing Iraq, the region and U.S. influence in the world.
Now that they have taken over Congress, Democrats have a responsibility to do more than simply oppose Bush and his policies. If there is any possibility that the United States and its interests can still succeed in Iraq, they need to help it happen.
It's very possible that America will fail. If so, Democrats should give no one the opportunity to say that they precipitated it.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
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