Walk the walk

October 22, 2006

A little skepticism is in order now that Washington is suddenly abuzz with talk about an inevitable change of direction in Iraq. It's no surprise that Republican members of Congress are falling off the stay-the-course wagon, because the war is truly unpopular and elections are just two weeks away. Of course some of the alarm is genuine, but there's nothing like an impending congressional upheaval to focus candidates' minds.

But will there be a change of strategy? Sen. John W. Warner, the respected Virginia Republican, may want one, and the Iraq Study Group led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton may recommend one, sometime around January, and the one-star generals may be agitating for one - yet the man in charge at the White House has made it quite clear that "victory" is his only exit strategy, and it's not at all certain that he will be susceptible anytime soon to pressures from outside his immediate circle of aides.

America has been here before. Every six months or so, there have been little bursts of speculation that a drawdown in U.S. forces may be only months away, but nothing ever happens. American policy has remained fixed since the beginning. This time around, the speculation is a lot more intense - and with good reason, given the ugly turn of events in Iraq and the coming elections here at home - but it's still just talk.

This is not to say that the administration's strategy in Iraq, which comes down to holding on and hoping for the best, can go on forever. It probably can't be sustained through the rest of President Bush's term, because the situation in Iraq is in decline by so many different measures. Plenty of people - including Republican members of Congress - are starting to take a more clear-eyed view of the war there. But Americans shouldn't be lulled into believing that common sense is finally reasserting itself in Washington until they see some evidence.

Last week, the president's press secretary, Tony Snow, said that talk of a course correction in Iraq was "a bunch of hooey." It's a disturbing thought, but he might be right. A lot of chatter for public consumption doesn't necessarily prove that a change of strategy is afoot. It may serve only to mislead people into believing that the administration is finally preparing to face reality.

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