President George W. Bush has just over two years left in office. The central question facing him is: what kind of Iraq will he bequeath to his successor? Will it be a metastasising mess dumped on the doorstep of the next president, or an Iraq on the path to stability and success? The answer will determine how this president should be remembered by future generations.

There are, of course, other grave issues that will consume the Bush administration over the next two years: the continuing need to defend Americans from terrorist threats; Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons; containment and weakening of a nuclear-armed North Korea; an increasingly belligerent Russia; and manifold challenges presented by a rising China. But the fact remains that Mr Bush (correctly, in our view) took the nation to war to remove Saddam Hussein, and the success or failure of that war will be central to his legacy.

The trajectory is downward towards failure. Indeed, this has been the case for more than three years, ever since Pentagon officials decided to put far too few troops in Iraq to bring stability after Hussein’s ousting. The result has been not only a consistently inadequate level of forces. The endless cycle of promised draw-downs, deteriorating security and cancellation of the proposed draw-downs has been politically disastrous in both Iraq and the US.

In Iraq, US policies have steadily undermined public confidence that America has either the will or capacity to provide the security Iraqis need. So they have turned to their own sectarian armed groups for protection. That, and not historical inevitability or the alleged failings of the Iraqi people, has brought Iraq closer to civil war.

These policies have been equally damaging in the US. The American people have rightly judged that the administration is floundering in Iraq and, worse, is not committed to doing what is necessary to succeed. This perception undoubtedly played a large part in last week’s mid-term election. Now, many Americans are looking to the Iraq Study Group, the commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, for a face-saving, bipartisan way to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible. The great irony is that with nothing new to offer, the Baker commission’s forthcoming report – if it takes the shape most observers predict – will probably suffer the same fate as similar past efforts.

There is a popular theory that the prospect of US withdrawal will force Iraqis to reach an accommodation with one another. This would be more plausible had it not been disproved by three years of painful experience. Instead of looking for a face-saving way to lose in Iraq, President Bush could finally demand of his top advisers a strategy to succeed: provide the US force levels necessary to achieve even minimal political objectives. This could begin by increasing US troops in Iraq by at least 50,000 in order to clear and hold Baghdad without shifting troops from other parts of Iraq. These operations could then be expanded into areas of insurgency. This strategy would not stabilise the country right away but could secure Iraq’s vital centre and provide real hope for progress.

Those who claim that 50,000 more troops do not exist to send to Iraq are wrong. But it is true that US ground forces are stretched, and that steps are needed to increase their overall size.

If the president undertook to send the necessary troops, we have no doubt many likely recommendations from the Baker commission would make sense and could be supported. We share the commission’s belief that the administration should actively seek bipartisan support for its approach to Iraq. Democratic hopefuls for the 2008 presidential elections should welcome any effort to ensure they are not left to deal with a collapsing country. There is much easy talk of how a victory strategy in Iraq has been rendered impossible by Tuesday’s elections. This is nonsense. First, victory in Iraq is a national priority, and to abandon it because of a loss of House and Senate seats would be irresponsible. The Republican loss was largely due to lack of confidence that Mr Bush had a victory strategy for Iraq, not a belief that he was not exiting fast enough. If the president makes clear he has such a strategy, he will have the support to do what is necessary.

As for the Baker commission’s likely recommendation that the US should engage Syria and Iran in the search for solutions in Iraq, we are sceptical these countries want to help. But it is one thing to seek their help while the US is losing and its negotiating position is weakest, and quite another to engage in such diplomacy while increasing US force levels to try to improve the security situation.

Finally, as others have noted, if the Iraqis choose to organise their country in a less “unified” and more “federated” way, that is fine – as long as it is peaceful and stable. A peaceful, federated Iraq will, however, require no less of a commitment of US troops to provide security than a unitary one.

The president has two years to turn things around and leave a viable Iraq to the next president. It should be obvious that “staying the course” is a recipe for failure. So are politically driven exit strategies. The president is left with the choice: quit, or do what is necessary to succeed. We trust he understands that the task before him in Iraq is to find a strategy for success.

Robert Kagan is author of “Dangerous Nation” (Alfred A. Knopf) and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard. William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard. This article is based on a longer essay in this week’s Standard.

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