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Election settled more than the control of Congress
Media General News Service


November 24, 2006

WASHINGTON -- I'm in the dentist's chair when he tells me the war in Iraq is "unwinnable."

That's what Susan, his assistant, has told him. She's from Jordan, a gentle Muslim who wears a hajib, the scarf that covers her hair and neck.

"I'm his consultant on the war," Susan says. My dentist has a consultant on the war?

She has a simple exit strategy. "The United States needs to get out of Iraq immediately," Susan declares, as practiced as any talking head on TV.

On Sunday after church, the talk over coffee and pumpkin bread turns to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. John Murtha and how to get out of Iraq. "Phased withdrawal," somebody says. Heads nod. But nobody's quite sure what "phased withdrawal" means, but it sounds reasonable.

And in the grocery line, I overhear a couple talking about the tough job facing "the ISG" - the Iraq Study Group. The bipartisan panel, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, is to release its plan for peace in Iraq next month.

It won't be "stay the course," the man says. But it won't be "cut and run," either, says the woman.

These conversations took place in Northern Virginia last week, but you don't have to live within the shadow of the Washington Monument to sense the yearning for an exit strategy that has settled in since Election Day.

Before Nov. 7, people debated whether to change course in Iraq. Today, Topic A is how and when to get out. The election settled more than the control of Congress. The Democrats soon to be in charge are committed to bringing the troops home. Now all we need is to figure out how.

Even hawkish old hands like President Richard Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, say we can't win. Asked on BBC Sunday AM whether a "clear military victory" was possible, Henry the K said no.

Here's Kissinger: "If you mean by 'clear military victory' an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible."

Kissinger's assumption of a civil war is another change from the pre-election debate. He also warned that a quick withdrawal from Iraq will make the bad situation there only worse.

President Bush still insists the United States can prevail - even he doesn't use the word "win" - in Iraq. In Vietnam, of all places, the president said, "We'll succeed unless we quit." This might make a good bumper strip, but it's hardly a strategy.

The public's perception of the president's handling of Iraq has dropped to its lowest level yet. In the Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Nov. 17, only 31 percent of those surveyed approved of the way Bush is dealing with Iraq. Replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't help his numbers. People know a fresh face doesn't necessarily mean fresh policy. The latest poll was more bad news for Bush - now conservatives and Republican men have lost faith in Bush's wartime performance.

When the options are this murky and there's no clear path, it's impossible to judge who's correct or could be correct. At this point, a lot of hope is resting on the Iraq Study Group.

Susan, the dental assistant, says a million Iraqis have fled across the open borders to Jordan.

"Are they with us or against us?" my dentist asks. Susan, the diplomat, demurs, saying there are some of both.

At the front counter, I hand Lori my credit card, and she asks if I've heard the latest from Kofi Annan on the war. Look into it, she says.

The U.N. secretary-general said in Geneva that the United States is trapped in Iraq, a war he says could have been avoided. "Trapped" is his word.

"It cannot stay and it cannot leave," Annan said.

That's unwinnable.


E-mail Marsha Mercer, Washington bureau chief of
Media General News Service, at mmercer(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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Ketchikan, Alaska