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Closely rereading the president’s Tuesday address at Ft. Bragg calls to mind speeches I wrote, 35 years ago, for Richard M. Nixon.

While Bush continues to insist Iraq is the central front in the war on terror and will never be abandoned “on my watch,” U.S. war policy is emerging as a 21st-century version of “Vietnamization.”

For the president just wagered the ultimate success or failure of this mission on the ability of Iraqis themselves. “As the Iraqis stand up,” said Bush, “we will stand down.”

Clearly, the president has heard the message of an impatient country. His rhetoric has been reconfigured to conform to reality. His policy is moving toward that urged upon him by Republican Rep. Walter Jones, whose House resolution calls on the president to draft a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but does not impose a hard timetable.

Bush appears to have begun to understand that for many Iraqis, the cause of this war – why they fight – is that we are there. They do not have to love Saddam to want Americans gone. And as President Bush has now told the Iraqis that we do not mean to stay, U.S. generals are back-channeling the Sunni insurgents to assure them we intend to leave – and that their real enemy is Zarqawi, al-Qaida and the foreign fighters, who intend to remain and start a civil war.

Not so very long ago, the neoconservatives were cawing, “On to Damascus!” and braying about Iraq becoming a U.S. strategic base camp flanking Iran and Syria. But, repeatedly at Ft. Bragg, Bush signaled that when our mission is complete, America will come home. “I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible,” he told the 82nd Airborne. “So do I.”

While ruling out a deadline for withdrawal, Bush emphasized, “We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed, and not a day longer.”

Not today, not tomorrow, but the day after, America is coming home.

To Sen. John McCain and others who say we need 100,000 more troops to cope with an insurgency that is now at its most murderous, Bush retorted: “Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging the Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are in fact working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave.”

There is another reason Bush will not be sending 100,000 more troops. The Army, Reserves, Marines and National Guard are failing to meet recruiting and re-enlistment quotas. Soon, Bush will not even have the option of sending another 100,000 troops, unless he is prepared to go to Congress and ask for a draft.

Democracy may be the antidote to terrorism, Bush is saying, and democracy may be the future of the Middle East, but democracy is not going to be brought in on the turrets of Abrams tanks. Whether the Arabs are free will depend on the Arabs themselves. And that is as it should be.

Admittedly, there were caveats. If U.S. commanders say more troops are needed, I will send them, said Bush. But as the generals have already said more troops are not needed and would entice more terrorists and give them more targets, the 135,000 in Iraq today is probably as high as the American commitment goes.

But fixing the level of U.S. forces raises the same problem as an announcement of a withdrawal date. The enemy now knows U.S. forces will not exceed present levels. But if 135,000 U.S. troops are adequate only to cope with the insurgency, but insufficient to crush it, where are the forces needed for victory to come from? Our European, Latin and Asian allies are all bailing out.

Bush’s answer: The new troops will come from Iraq itself.

Thus, whether we win or lose this war is going to come down to the question it came down to for Nixon – as he pungently put it in the early 1970s – “Can the Vietnamese hack it?”

Can the Iraqis hack it? Can Iraqis build up their political institutions and military and security forces not only to take over from the Americans, but to win a war the Americans were unable to win? The answer to that question will give us the answer to a far greater question: Will Iraq be a historic triumph for the United States and George Bush, or is it destined to end in a defeat and a debacle more disastrous than Vietnam?

What persuades me we are headed for a crisis is that, within the president’s speech, lies a contradiction. He calls the war in Iraq “vital to the future security of our country” – i.e., defeat would be life-threatening for America.

But if victory is vital to this country, how can President Bush ever entrust the outcome of this war to Iraqis? If victory is vital, how can he rule out more troops? If victory is vital, how can he even rule out a draft?

Has President Bush thought this through?

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