This article original appeared in The Star-Ledger (Newark) on June 26, 2005.

One year after the political turnover in Iraq and only five months after the inspiring election of a legitimate government, the Bush administration is losing the battle for hearts and minds around the world and in the United States. A majority of Americans have profound doubts about our strategy and think the invasion was a mistake that has increased the terrorism threat here at home.

Voices across the political spectrum are now calling for an exit strategy. Conservatives like Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.c=) say the United States has accomplished all it can militarily in Iraq. And while administration supporters suggest we don’t fight wars based on opinion polls, one “poll” can’t be dismissed: The Pentagon reports that only 14 percent of parents, coaches and others who influence young men and women would encourage them to enlist. Iraq is the overriding reason Army, National Guard, Army Reserve and Marine Corps recruiting trends are all negative.

The risk is that Iraq, like Vietnam, will undermine the readiness of our armed forces and create a breach between the military and the society it serves — wounds that took more than a decade to heal.

President Bush plans to use the first anniversary of the political transition this Tuesday to rebuild public support for the Iraq mission. He should follow the advice of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, who developed a six-point doctrine to guide when and how to commit military forces overseas.

Weinberger stressed that military force should be used 1) as a last resort, 2) in defense of a vital national interest, 3) when military and political objectives are clearly defined, 4) with the size and composition of forces appropriate to the task and continually reassessed, 5) with the clear intention of winning, and 6) with a “reasonable assurance” of support from Congress and the American people.

Continuing the current course is not an option. If he has any hope of regaining lost trust on our purpose in Iraq and justifying the growing cost, Bush must be completely candid (not easy for someone who doesn’t admit mistakes) about the current situation, what’s at stake, what it will take to succeed and, in general terms, how long the mission will last.

So what does he need to say?

First, the president needs to admit that things aren’t going well. The administration’s lost credibility over the past two years — stemming from exaggerations and miscalculations about weapons of mass destruction, the progress of reconstruction, the attitudes of ordinary Iraqis and the nature of the insurgency — have come home to roost. He needs to close the gap between what the American people have been told and what they see.

The president says we’re winning. We’re not. The vice president says the insurgency is in its last throes. It’s not. Somewhere in Iraq, there may be good news to report, but the American people see the big picture. As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) noted, the administration’s assessments of Iraq are disconnected from reality — and the reality is we are losing in Iraq.

Second, Bush must explain why Iraq is now the central front in the war against terror and what our military is still there to accomplish. Regrettably, as a recent CIA report noted, the invasion of Iraq was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Contrary to pre-invasion administration rhetoric, Saddam had no significant links to Osama bin Laden. Now Iraq does, because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and foreign terrorists have flocked there since the U.S. occupation began.

Al-Zarqawi has successfully exploited the Bush administration’s failure to plan and execute an effective post-invasion strategy. Drawing a lesson from Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. military should concentrate on significantly reducing al-Zarqawi’s destructive capability, before any major American withdrawal.

The president needs to reframe the Iraq debate in terms of our direct national security interests. Iraq is not about liberating an oppressed people. (If that were the case, we would have troops in Sudan to oppose a genuine state sponsor of terrorism.) Our forces are not there to play rope-a-dope until Iraqis get their political and military act together. Our troops are now in Iraq to defeat terrorists who could ultimately threaten American citizens.

Finally, Bush needs to tell the American people what this commitment will cost and in rough terms how long it will take. This doesn’t require an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal; that would be a mistake. However, the administration’s current line — as long as it takes and not a day more — is insufficient.

If the president believes that the upcoming Iraqi election will allow us to succeed in months, he needs to outline an exit strategy. If it will take years, we need a sustainment strategy, including details on how our ground troops can maintain the current operational tempo; how much this will cost (on top of the $200 billion already committed); and how he intends to pay for it. It’s time for the president to stop pretending that war is risk-free and cost-free.

In the coming days, Bush needs to outline a new course for Iraq linked to specific military objectives and a clear exit ramp if he hopes to regain the trust of the American people. Otherwise, he may end up sounding like the last president to hail from Texas, who got in over his head in Vietnam, lost his way and watched the country tear apart over an unpopular war.

Lawrence Korb and P.J. Crowley are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Korb served as an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. Crowley was a special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton.

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