I don't envy Democratic Party candidates who are asked to define a new Iraq policy.
White House mistakes have left the United States with no good alternatives in Iraq.
To leave now would (I believe) cast the country into full-scale civil war, leaving a failed state that is a haven for jihadis. But to stay on under the current policy will do little but hold off the deluge.
That said, Democratic hopefuls still need to make the case for why it makes sense to let their party try to salvage the Iraq mess. So let me suggest what a Democratic candidate might say:
Fellow Americans, there is no issue of more consequence to American foreign policy than Iraq.
Republicans accuse us of aiding the terrorists. That charge is untrue and unseemly, given that Republican mistakes have turned Iraq into a training ground for al-Qaida. However, what you want to know is whether Democrats have a better plan.
The mistakes of the past three years have left few good options and the past colors our choices for the future.
Some of my fellow Democrats, and some in the military, believe a speedy troop drawdown would take the steam out of the insurgency. I respectfully disagree. I believe a quick U.S. exit would open the door to a full-scale civil war and the collapse of Iraq, leaving a failed state that would become a magnet for terrorists. Iraq's Shiite and Sunni neighbors would play out their quarrels over its bloody corpse.
Yet I do not believe that we can just "stay the course." This White House mantra is based on the hope that Iraq's national unity government can pull Shiites and Sunnis together and thus undercut the Sunni insurgents. But the mantra isn't working.
The hard-core Sunni ex-Baathists and jihadis who want to seize power have brought the country to the brink of civil war. They have viciously attacked Shiite civilians since 2003. After years of turning the other cheek, the Shiites are retaliating against Sunni civilians.
Unless these hard-core Sunnis can be stopped, Iraq's national unity government won't hold together. The slide toward civil war will accelerate, as moderate Sunnis are assassinated. The Iraq national security battalions we've trained won't jell, as their country falls apart.
So we Americans are facing a moment of truth. Right now, U.S. forces are fighting alongside Iraqis to try to drive Sunni hard-liners out of Baghdad. But the U.S. military is strained and degraded by the administration's lack of planning for the demands of the postwar. It doesn't have enough troops in Iraq to do the job.
In order to fight in Baghdad, we have pulled troops out of al-Anbar province, the bastion of Sunni hard-liners. This led recently to a remarkable protest memo by the head of U.S. marine intelligence in the province, calling desperately for more aid and troops.
We are playing whack-a-mole, moving troops from one hot area to another and losing the gains we've made each time we do so. This lowers the chance that we can stop the hard-liners. It shrinks the chance that Iraq's unity government can survive and that its security forces thrive. Few Americans are in the mood to send more troops to Iraq. Many military specialists say there are no more combat-ready troops to send. Perhaps so.
But if you elect this Democrat to office, I will not continue a Republican policy that is failing.
We must decide as a nation, and soon, whether we think it is worth trying to bring stability to Iraq, a nation whose previous system we took down. We must search harder to find the troops we need, and the right kind of troops, to stabilize Iraq over the next year - and to give its government a chance.
We must also try harder to enhance a program that is showing success, that embeds U.S. units within Iraqi units and helps them fight. These special U.S. units need more men, and soon.
We must stop funneling U.S. aid money to large contractors - and hold the administration responsible for a system that has produced shameful scandals and a scarcity of results.
And we must put Iraq into the context of a broader regional strategy. It will not be possible to stabilize that country without revising our policy toward Iran. Nor can we halt the destabilization of the Mideast region without a new effort to rejuvenate negotiations over a Palestinian state.
I haven't even broached the need for an energy policy that makes us less dependent on Mideast oil wells - a policy this administration has shamefully failed to devise.
But first and foremost, you must ask whether you trust a government that has failed so badly to rethink its mantras. We need competence, accountability, and the willingness to change course. Otherwise, our Iraq venture is destined for disaster.
The choice is yours.