Bush's 'Tet' Moment Is Coming in Iraq

All my life, said Voltaire, "I have never made but one prayer. … ‘Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it."

George Bush must have been praying the same way lately.

In his "Plan for Victory" address to the Naval Academy, the president declared: "Against this adversary, there is only one effective response: We will never back down. We will never give in. And we will never accept anything less than complete victory."

This is what one expects of a commander in chief in wartime, speaking to the patriotic young midshipmen, who roared approval.

To which Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean instantly retorted, "The idea that we’re going to win this war … is just plain wrong."

How’s that for a Churchillian, "we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches … we-shall-never-surrender" moment?

Sunday on "Face the Nation," John Kerry said to Bob Schieffer: "There is no reason, Bob, that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking … the historical customs, religious customs. … Iraqis should be doing that."

After the laughter died, Democratic spin-doctors were out in force explaining that Kerry was not calling U.S. troops terrorists.

After Bush went before the Council of Foreign Relations to report some progress in the war, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi headed for the cameras to sneer: "Just because he says things are improving doesn’t make it so. … The president says the security situation on the ground is better. It is not."

How’s that for a morale booster?

Rep. Jack Murtha added, "Bush’s plan is to stay the course and hope."

But, surely, hope is superior to this remorseless despair and defeatism oozing out of the Democratic Party. One wonders what Jack Murtha’s old Marine buddies think when they hear him — day in, day out — wail that all is lost and the U.S. Army is "broken, worn out" and "living hand to mouth."

"They have a right to criticize who have a heart to help," said Lincoln. Listening to Democrats, it is hard to discern any of the later, outside of Sen. Joe Lieberman. Whatever one thinks of the war, the party is revealing itself to be so steeped in pessimism that it is unfit to lead the nation. Who could vote for such a party?

Democrats are again courting a perception that they are not really a loyal opposition at all, but a party of defeat and retreat, whose worst nightmare would be to see George Bush emerge as a victorious president in a war they said we could not win. This is precisely the perception Democrats created in the last days of Vietnam — and they paid a hellish price for it.

Half the nation now believes the war was a mistake and wants U.S. troop withdrawals to begin. But no patriot wants to see Iraq collapse into chaos and civil war, and everything for which 2,100 Americans died and 16,000 suffered washed down a sewer.

But if President Bush is doing his duty in rallying the nation not to cut and run, there appears to be a disconnect between his policy and reality. If, after 30 months and 150,000 troops in Iraq, the insurgency is not defeated, how will we achieve victory when we withdraw 20,000 after this week’s elections and another 40,000 next year, bringing U.S. troop levels to 100,000 by Election Day 2006?

While undeniably true that the U.S. military presence is a primary cause of the Sunni insurgency, it is also true that the U.S. military presence alone stands between the insurgency and victory in the Sunni provinces of the west.

As U.S. forces are drawn down and Iraqi forces "stand up," in Bush’s phrase, we are going to face a moment when our Iraqis are going to have to engage and defeat an insurgency we have been unable to beat with 150,000 of the best-trained anti-insurgency troops in the world. What leads us to believe they can hack it, if, after three years, we couldn’t?

Murtha’s depiction of the Army as "broken, worn out … living hand to mouth" sounds like the Army of Northern Virginia after the fall of Petersburg. It is surely an exaggeration. But the Army is stretched — including Reserves, Guard and combat units, some of which are headed back for second and third tours. This cannot continue.

As our moment of truth in Vietnam came in the Tet Offensive of 1968 that broke Lyndon Johnson, Bush’s "Tet moment" is coming in Iraq, almost surely in 2006, when the insurgency appears to be growing in strength and confidence, and the new government appears shaky.

If his generals come to him, then, and say: Mr. President, we have to stop the withdrawals and may need more troops to stave off a collapse — what does Bush do? Almost certainly, we shall find out in the new year.

Meanwhile, Bush should keep praying Voltaire’s prayer.