New day brings chance for a new strategy in Iraq

November 10, 2006|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- What a difference a day makes.

On Monday, those who questioned the wisdom or competence of Bush foreign policy were being dismissed by Republicans as "defeatocrats." Only last week, President Bush vowed to keep Donald H. Rumsfeld on as secretary of defense until 2008.

Then, on Tuesday, the public registered a stunning vote of no-confidence in Bush foreign policy - driven by dissatisfaction with Iraq. Democrats will control the House and the Senate. On Wednesday, before the results were even final, the president dumped Mr. Rumsfeld. And Mr. Bush talked repeatedly about "bipartisanship" and the need to find "common ground" with Democrats.

It may be too late for even sincere bipartisanship to save Mr. Bush's Iraq venture. But if the president is really open to new ideas, there is a small chance he can produce better foreign-policy results over the next two years. Of course, control of Congress doesn't give Democrats control of foreign policy. The president still makes key decisions. But the voters' message - and the return of congressional oversight - open the way to more honest public debate about those choices. Now that the president is compelled to listen to other voices, a reality-based policy may finally emerge.

Moreover, it is just possible that "bipartisanship" will become a term with meaning, rather than the meaningless buzzword it was under Republican political domination. Delaware's Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who may become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has long worked closely with two thoughtful Republicans, Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Other Republicans unhappy with Bush foreign policy are now free to join Democratic counterparts in seeking a way out of the Iraq trap.

And the Democratic electoral tide will add importance to the recommendations of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat. Mr. Bush will meet with the group early next week.

If the Bush administration is ready to change its Mideast approach, the Democratic victory gives it a chance to escape the hole it has dug for itself.

How so? First, that victory has precipitated the exit of the architect of an Iraq war strategy that failed to defeat the Baathists and permitted an insurgency to grow. The departure of Mr. Rumsfeld, who was loathed by Army and Marine brass, clears the air for Congress to consider ways of remedying the damage the Iraq war has wreaked on the uniformed military. It also opens the way for new ideas on Iraq and the whole Middle East.

Second, Democratic control of Congress might help improve America's declining reputation abroad, which centers on disdain for the president. Congressional Democrats are likely to show more concern than the White House for issues that matter to the rest of the world, such as global warming and the standards of the Geneva Conventions.

Improved relations with foreign governments matter greatly at a time when the administration badly needs international help in winding down its Iraq presence. Indeed, the Baker-Hamilton group is likely to recommend that an international conference be convened to get Iraq's Mideast neighbors and other countries to help stabilize the country.

The ascendancy of the Democrats may also help Mr. Baker sell his views to the White House. He has made clear he believes it is necessary to talk with our enemies, such as Syria and Iran - an idea that still divides the Bush administration.

What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats' rise can advance other key foreign-policy issues. One of the most important is energy policy: Might we finally have one? The Democrats have pledged to push for conservation policies that reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Whether Mr. Bush and the Democrats can work together in a bipartisan fashion is far from certain. But he dearly needs the Democrats to help rescue him from the mistakes of the past six years.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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