As August fades into September, George W. Bush faces a political landscape radically altered from when he departed for Crawford. A major reason is Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey. Bush fundamentally misread the clarity and dignity of Sheehan's demand for a meeting with him to ask why her son died in Iraq, and instead offered the nation an image of the Commander in Chief going on bicycle rides. Bush's robotic repetition of one of his favorite catch-phrases--"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down"--rang hollow as the body count of US troops exceeded 1,800 and polls showed nearly two-thirds of Americans disillusioned with his conduct of the war. Meanwhile in Iraq, claims that continued US occupation is vital in order to foster democracy and stability were mocked by a constitutional process that appeared more likely to lead to the imposition of Islamic law and to conditions ripe for civil war.
In late August, in what seemed to be a direct response to the Sheehan protest, Bush interrupted his five-week vacation to give a speech in Salt Lake City that offered his newest rationalization for the war--that we "owe" it to the dead to stay in Iraq. But that circular reasoning fell as flat as the rationalizations before it. "It pains me to hear that more people should die because those people have died," Celeste Zappala, mother of another American soldier killed in Iraq, told the New York Times. "That makes no sense. We can honor them by having an intelligent, honest policy."
As Congress prepares to return to Washington, key Democrats--including presidential aspirants Kerry, Clinton and Biden--continue to sidestep the Iraq dilemma. Instead of calling for an exit plan, leading Democrats talk about adding more troops in order to "win." This stance puts them in an implicit alliance with the neocons, who blame insufficient commitment, rather than the occupation itself, for the collapsed policy.
Instead, Democrats should be following the example of those on both sides of the aisle who are calling for withdrawal. A House resolution known as the Homeward Bound Act, which was introduced by four Representatives, including Republican Walter Jones and Democrat Neil Abercrombie, and which already has fifty co-sponsors, would require Bush to put together a plan by the end of this year for bringing all US forces home from Iraq, beginning no later than October 1, 2006. Russell Feingold recently became the first senator to call for withdrawal by a specific date: the end of 2006. His rationale--that this would remove a key reason for the continuing violence--was echoed by GOP Senator Chuck Hagel, who told ABC's This Week, "We should start figuring out how we get out of there.... I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we're there, I think, the further destabilization will occur."
As part of an effort to find a way out of Iraq, Representative Lynn Woolsey is organizing an unofficial Congressional hearing on September 15 (modeled on the one organized by Representative John Conyers about the Downing Street memos). At that hearing, academics, military personnel and other experts will discuss strategies for Washington to achieve military disengagement from Iraq while still playing a constructive role in the rebuilding of Iraqi society. Also in September, leading peace groups will present a petition to Congress that lays out an exit strategy. This is the time for activists, who are preparing a Washington march on September 24, to reach out beyond their own ranks to welcome families and soldiers who may have initially supported the war out of loyalty or idealism, but who now feel betrayed.
There is no possible strategy to "win" in Iraq, only the urgent necessity of a road map out. As Representative Woolsey wrote of her hearing plans: "Everything about this war has been a ruinous debacle...there is only one solution: Bring the troops home."