Reaching for the Center: Realists Take Charge

The election whupping marked the end of George W. Bush's radical experiment in partisan government — and a plea for politicians to get serious about solving problems

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Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House.

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While the U.S. was holding an election, Iraq's democratically elected government was proving itself a failure. "It's become clear that the Maliki government has made things worse across the board," a senior Administration official told me. The biggest winner has been the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is the most popular and probably the most powerful leader among the dominant Iraqi Shi'ites. In the past year, according to U.S. military and intelligence sources, the Iranians have placed their bets on al-Sadr, "doubling down" on their support for his militia, the Mahdi Army. As a result, leaders of both the U.S. military and the intelligence community have come to the conclusion that a major change of policy, an effort to prevent al-Sadr from eventually taking power, is in order. The mind-numbing difficulty of the situation had some very serious people grasping at straws, cracking jokes. "It's a Mick Jagger moment," the senior Administration official told me. "You can't always get what you want. The question is, Can we get what we need?"

What we wanted was democracy; what we need is stability. No fewer than three efforts are under way to figure out how to achieve that goal--the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton; a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq; and the Joint Chiefs' study group in the Pentagon. Up until last week, the biggest question was whether the President understood he was facing a Mick Jagger moment. But his selection of Gates and his constant references to the Baker commission may indicate that Bush now recognizes the futility of the neoconservative fantasy of an Iraqi democracy imposed by an American invasion--or it may have just been palliative spin, in a week when it was wise to seem humble. Either way, the dramatic turn for the worse in Iraq means that the President's previous policy--hang on with the current troop levels and hope for the best--cannot be sustained. And the dramatic turn toward the Democrats in Washington means that Bush's new Iraq policy will require bipartisan support. Last week the incoming Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, was asked if the Senate might legislate troop withdrawals if the President didn't figure out a way to begin them. "It may come to that," he said.

Of course, it is assumed by most people in Washington that bipartisan efforts on even the smallest matters, much less the war in Iraq, will be near impossible. You've heard the arguments: the House of Representatives will be controlled by ancient liberals of Vietnam vintage, just itching to investigate and indict; Bush has shown precious little inclination toward compromise in his various moral crusades--tax cuts, Social Security reform, the war--and Dick Cheney has shown even less. The standard postelection gestures toward peace and bipartisanship certainly seemed more starchy than genuine. The President opened his press conference with an ironic shot at the media: "Why all the glum faces?" If Jane Austen were writing a novel about Bush's public aspect, the title would be Pride and Petulance. But for the sake of argument and in the hope that sanity will prevail, let me make a mild case for optimism.

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