PHILADELPHIA -- It was painful to watch President Bush toss away what may be his last chance to head off a total Iraq disaster.
The president believes that, by rejecting his critics in Congress, he's cementing his place as another Churchill. More likely he will be remembered as the opposite of a Churchill. He clings to an approach that divides rather than unites the home front, while promoting a "victory" formula that can't work in Iraq. The president says we are working to "aid the rise of an Iraqi government" that can secure its own country and deliver services to its people. Such a functional government is crucial to the drawdown of U.S. troops. But there's a crucial flaw in the formula, of which U.S. military commanders are painfully aware. Despite some recent U.S. security gains, the Iraqi government remains dysfunctional and divided by sect. The political system that the United States devised for Iraq created a weak central government and sectarian parties. The Iraqi police, and the military (to a lesser extent) are penetrated by sectarian militias. So, despite any surge gains, these Iraqi forces would probably split along sectarian lines as soon as U.S. troops departed. Iraq would collapse into a more intense civil war.
This flaw in the president's formula was in full view last week when he had to admit that the Iraqi government has failed so far to meet the most crucial benchmarks for reconciliation. Nor will it meet those benchmarks in the foreseeable future; certainly not by September, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will give a much-awaited progress report.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, has pleaded with the White House to take a more bipartisan approach to the Iraq dilemma. Were Mr. Bush to listen to Mr. Lugar, the barest chance exists that he could find a way out of his double dilemma and rally bipartisan support for a policy addressing the real Iraq.
Such a policy would formally endorse the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which Mr. Bush has verbally applauded but rebuffed in practice. The report has flaws but contains crucial recommendations that could give Mr. Bush - and Congress - a cover to do what's needed. Foremost among them is the call for an intensive diplomatic initiative on Iraq.
The White House has paid lip service to diplomacy but hasn't been serious. Mr. Bush is preparing to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on yet another fruitless Mideast visit. This is not what's required.
What's needed is a congressional push for diplomacy, which the president joins. Here's the vehicle: Among several amendments the Senate is considering on Iraq (all tied to the defense authorization bill) is a bipartisan call to implement the Iraq Study Group's recommendations. Pennsylvania's Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is one of the co-sponsors.
Mr. Casey thinks this is the only amendment with a chance to get the 60 votes in the Senate required to shut off debate.
If Mr. Bush were smart, he would join in and use the Iraq Study Group report as a cover to do what he's avoided: putting all of America's withering diplomatic muscle behind a push to stabilize the entire Mideast.
Red lines would have to be established against meddling in Iraq by its neighbors. Serious U.S. interaction with Iran and Syria would be required. Dreams of regime change would have to be dropped. A special U.S. negotiator would be required - preferably Bush pere's consigliere, James A. Baker III, coauthor of the Iraq Study Group report.
Any schedule for U.S. withdrawal - and the report calls for a drawdown - would come in tandem with progress in these talks. The prospect of a U.S. exit, and its timing, could be used as leverage to get Iraq's neighbors to help.
Sound like a pipe dream? Not necessarily, if those senators who understand the cost of an Iraq debacle pull together. Maybe it would take a delegation of a dozen Republican senators visiting Mr. Bush at the White House to convey the message that this is the president's last chance to salvage some honor. Now is the moment, senators, for us and Iraq.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.