President Bush likes to say Democrats belong "to the party of cut and run." He continues to say this even though the administration's strategy for insisting on timetables from Iraqi leaders is becoming harder to distinguish from plans put forward by Democrats. But now the Bush administration is having problems fighting off labels. White House officials have banished the phrase"stay the course" from presidential speeches and public comments. They claim it mischaracterizes the administration's Iraq policy.
The linguistic gamesmanship may be absurd, but it's true that "stay the course" hasn't been President Bush's policy for a while, if it ever was. On the ground, U.S. military tactics have been shifting all the time. Unfortunately, this semantic truth should comfort no one, least of all Republicans. The problem in Iraq is not that new tactics haven't been tried. It's that they have been, and they've failed.
Democrats have enjoyed using the "stay the course" expression in their campaign ads to suggest that the administration, and Republican candidates, are oblivious and rigid. Recently Republicans have started to embrace a similar sentiment to distance themselves from Iraq policy. "We can't continue to keep doing the same things and expect different results," said Sen. George Allen. "We must adapt. We must adjust our tactics." Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "[W]e're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working. … It's [the administration's] job to come up with a game plan" to end the violence.
If simply adjusting tactics or drawing up a new game plan were all that were necessary to reduce the violence in Iraq, then U.S. forces would already be on their way home. Since at least early 2004, the administration has been asking military leaders to be more flexible. After the particularly gory March 2004 murder of four civilian contractors, Gen. John Abizaid's initial plan was to flatten the city of Fallujah, but the administration took a different path after talking to locals. Their sources told them such an overwhelming and indiscriminate response would permanently alienate the Iraqis and spoil the chance for political progress.
Since then, the U.S. military has tried a series of different tactics. And on the stump, the president has increasingly tried to show that he and his military advisers have learned lessons and adapted. In April 2006 he devoted nearly an entire speech to the success of the "clear, hold, build" strategy that had supposedly led to victories in Tall Afar. But that model hasn't lived up to its billing. The "stand up, stand down" strategy of equipping Iraqi police and security forces so that U.S. forces can reduce their duties has not worked, either. A year ago, U.S. military commanders predicted that the strategy would mean 50,000 troops would be going home by next month. Now, commanders are saying the first troops won't go home until next spring, if not later. Two different strategies to contain violence in Baghdad have also failed.
What's being lost in the semantic game over "stay the course" is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. If the administration were as flexible as it has been proclaiming recently, it would be talking about these options. It has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. If the White House is doing away with the old slogan, perhaps it should mint a new one: "All options are ugly."