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The job that keeps on growing
Media General News Service


October 25, 2005

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wouldn't answer a senator's question whether U.S. troops will still be in Iraq even 10 years from now.

Not appropriate, she pleaded. Not the question, but answering it, of course.

One answer she could have given, but didn't, is that in 10 years she will not be secretary of State anymore; thus, she would have no say in the matter.

Of course, she could be president in 10 years. Then she could have a say. There has been some talk of that. But that's another story.

The important message she took back to Foggy Bottom is that the Senate needs to see some kind of shape right now for the U.S. policy in Iraq, not just the Rorschach ink blots splattering the walls of Capitol hearing rooms. All of the Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee and all but a couple of Republicans more or less told Rice she needs to have something more definitive in the way of an exit strategy the next time she visits.

The reason for this, I suspect, isn't so much what's happening in Iraq as what's happening at the White House.

The old military ailment called "mission creep" is on the verge of becoming a pandemic. President Bush's Oct. 6 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy was breathtaking in its scope, as it outlined new horizons for the war on terrorism spreading from Iraq.

Maybe it scared the enemy, but it scared a few people at home too. All exit ramps for a withdrawal seemed to be blockaded for eternity.

In that speech, Bush ridiculed the "easy life, the quiet life" being sought by those who demand an Iraqi pullout. He drew a warrior's future in which "we will keep our nerve and we will win that victory."

What's more, that Spartan future would not be just until the Iraq war was settled but until the militants can be denied control of "any nation, which they would use as a home base or as a launching pad for terror." He mentioned Afghanistan in that regard, but once again said "state sponsors of terrorism" like Iran and Syria would be held to account "by the civilized world."

The Iraq war, in his view, is part of a broader campaign against Islamic terror as well as to withstand tyranny and spread democracy throughout the Middle East. It was if this was to become a permanent endeavor of American forces radiating out from Iraq.

That speech looks like a foreign policy blueprint for the rest of Bush's term.

Yet, at Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations hearing, members found the task facing U.S. troops and civilian personnel just in Iraq to be formidable. The chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, referred to the "permanent instability or civil war in Iraq" and said it could set back American interests in the Middle East for "a generation."

There was similar despair on both sides of the partisan divide. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said all that the administration can offer are "open-ended, vague" guideposts for success.

Few on the committee are demanding a timetable, accepting the point that it would encourage the enemy to hold out. But like Lugar, they do want the administration to define "the basis upon which our troops are likely to come home."

If there is such a basis for disengagement, one of its elements surely is the speed which the Iraqi people can unify themselves and administer justice fairly.

The Sunni voters' participation in last weekend's election gives some hope that Iraq's new government can find balance. The lopsided Shiite-Kurdish sectarian state now in charge was headed straight for the ditch.

In addition, the trial of a healthy, well-cared-for Saddam Hussein was handled admirably on opening day by a calm Iraqi presiding officer. While a certain number of critics will always claim this is a victor's justice, the trial was open for all to see as exactly what it was.

It seemed - from a distance - like a comparatively good week for Iraq. For once. But here in the American ruling circles, Iraq is viewed as a job that keeps on growing.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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