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Maybe it's time to declare victory, start packing up


WASHINGTON - I'm sure President Bush is thinking hard about a strategy for the United States to honorably pull out of Iraq. It's just that he chooses not to share it with the rest of us.

If anything is making more sense at this point, it is the George D. Aiken option: Declare victory and come home. That's exactly what the Vermont Republican senator suggested to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon as Americans sank deeper into Vietnam's quicksand.

But Mr. Bush, in his recent speeches to pump up his sagging approval ratings, gives us bromides instead, such as, "We're going to stay until we get the job done," which also raises the questions, what is "the job" and what is "done"?

In a recent Newsweek poll that showed a 61 percent disapproval rating for Mr. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, only 26 percent agreed with his wish to keep American troops there for "as long as it takes." The question, then, is not whether to leave but when and how? Leaving too soon would be a dishonorable abandonment of our good-faith commitment to the Iraqi people. Staying too long, however, could make bad matters worse.

A new reality appears to be sinking in among all but the president's most devoted followers: Our mission has changed. Can we make it better?

Or have we done about all we can do? After spending $300 billion and losing more than 1,850 American troops, among thousands of other lost lives, has the American presence become an impediment to the process it is trying to shepherd through?

Mr. Bush's recent speeches inaccurately cast the war as an us-vs.-them battle with terrorists. In fact, the United States increasingly looks like an outside force caught in the crossfire of a developing civil war between multiple Iraqi factions, principally the old Baath Party and the ethnic factions of Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Muslims.

Everyone agrees that Iraqis need to figure out their own future, for better or worse. But our experience there suggests that our well-intentioned efforts to keep Iraq united and give equal importance to the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds actually has encouraged those factions to make even bigger demands on us and the nation-building process.

Mr. Bush refuses to announce a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, but his administration has imposed a timetable on Iraqis, pushing them to set up a new constitutional government and security forces that, one hopes, will accelerate the day when Americans can begin an honorable troop withdrawal.

Mr. Bush's references to this country's constitutional process leave out the harsh reality that the process eventually had to be settled by our own Civil War. It is hard to imagine any outside power that could have helped our Founding Fathers prevent that catastrophe.

Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin is the first senator to call for a specific pullout deadline, defying the Democratic leadership. His date, Dec. 31, 2006, for all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq is only a "target," not a "deadline," he pointed out, and can be pushed back if circumstances require it.

At least it would put pressure on the Iraqis to work out their disputes while giving Americans an achievable exit strategy.

But whether Team Bush or Congress goes for a Feingold-style timetable, the White House is facing a very real timetable in terms of next year's midterm elections and, two years after that, the 2008 presidential campaign.

Nervousness among incumbent congressmen of both parties is one reason why Mr. Bush has taken to the road in recent days, if only to resell the war with warmed-over bromides. To a lot of Americans, the Aiken strategy is looking better every day.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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