The new 'if' in Iraq

For a commander with "zero tolerance" for terror and a teeth-gritting drive for "victory" in Iraq, President Bush has introduced a big "if" in his new war plan: The US may end its support "if the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises."

With that two-letter word in his speech Wednesday, Mr. Bush has now tied this nearly four-year-old war to both steady progress by Iraq's leaders and to the impatient public mood reflected in US politics – specifically to the presidential primaries in one year or, if the war persists, the hand over of power to a new American president in two years.

"I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended," Bush said, and that they may "lose the support of the American people."

Before this speech, Bush did not really have a clock ticking for this war.

Now he has one.

The reason may lie in his own looming exit, last year's escalation of violence in Iraq, or the election last November of many "pull out" Democrats in Congress.

Whatever the reasons, the commander in chief now acts as a marathoner in a final, last-effort sprint to the tape.

Perhaps he hopes that his humble admission of past mistakes in the war, a troop increase, new generals, more aid, and the lack of a unifying exit plan from Democrats will allow him to leave office with a victory of some sorts. Or, if Iraqi officials can't make good in disbanding Shiite militias and making political concession to Sunnis, he'll have an excuse to explain why the war failed.

His message to Iraq's leaders is this: The next president, come Jan. 20, 2009, may abandon Iraq altogether. So it's best to work with me before that happens and show that this war is winnable.

This wouldn't be the first time that a pending change in the occupant of the White House has hung like a sword of Damocles over another nation.

In 1979, President Carter was fumbling to either rescue or arrange the release of 52 American hostages held in the US Embassy by radical Islamists in Iran. On the campaign trail, candidate Ronald Reagan was beating the drums for strong US action. As one hostage told his captors: The first day Reagan's in office, "he'll go back to the White House and say, 'OK, tell the Iranians if they don't let those hostages go by midnight tomorrow night, it's war.' "

On Jan. 20, 1980, at the moment Reagan was taking the oath of office, a plane carrying the hostages was leaving Iran. The ruling clerics had gotten the message. Iraq's rulers, too, have now gotten the message that the protecting presence of US troops is conditional on their actions and the next act in American politics.

The new top US commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, is well aware of how wars of insurgency end. His PhD dissertation was on the lessons of Vietnam. He supervised the new manual of counterinsurgency warfare. And he backs this "surge" of troops to secure Baghdad's streets.

But even he has asked, "How does this end?" According to his own field manual, success "depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government's rule."

That is Iraq's big "if."

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