It is natural to assume, in these waning and war-scarred days of his presidency, George W. Bush is considering the similar predicament of a predecessor, Richard Nixon, as he faces decisions about Iraq. The president should consider that Nixon’s Vietnam pullout led to the deaths of more than 2 million Cambodians. An Iraq withdrawal could cost even more lives.

About the only thing that would save President Bush further grief would be for the Iraqi government to begin functioning properly, such as by implementing the promised power-sharing with the Sunnis or assuring equal access to Iraq’s oil revenues. But the Iraqis continue to suffer from inertia, while Americans are dying.

On the other hand, the beginning of a withdrawal by President Bush could save the Republican Party in 2008 by removing Iraq from the campaign. He could still help the effort by pointing to the war against terrorism and the healthy U.S. economy.

Even the Democrats are talking about retaining enough soldiers to provide critical support for the Iraqi army and to fight terrorism. U.S. military sources say this would take 75,000 troops. If Bush’s reduction number is in the same ball park as those of the Democratic front runners, by the time next year’s campaign gets under way Iraq will no longer be an issue.

The American public will applaud an Iraqi pullout, including those cynical Democrats who will accuse President Bush of playing politics. He can’t be accused of playing politics by finally firing Donald Rumsfeld, since he did so far too late to help the party in the 2006 election.

Closer to the White House, even Republican leaders have begun to challenge the continued deployment of some 157,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. “We must not abandon our mission, but we must begin a transition where the Iraqi government and its neighbors play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq,” Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a recent letter to President Bush. It was released to the press a day after the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, told the Senate Mr. Bush’s strategy is a failure.

“The longer we delay the planning for redeployment, the less likely it is to be successful,” said Lugar, who followed similar remarks earlier this year by GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon. It should be noted that the Senate Democrats need 60 votes to pass legislation calling for Bush to withdraw troops. As the AP reported, Snowe, reflecting on Lugar’s remarks, said, “It certainly indicates the tide is turning.”

President Bush could declare victory and leave on this turning tide. Indeed, America has rid Iraq of its bloodthirsty tyrant and offered the Iraqi people the opportunity to replace him with their own democracy, now with some reduced assistance. President Bush wins, the GOP wins, America wins – just Iraq loses.

Analysts agree that a massive American withdrawal would lead to the genocidal massacre of many hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, and likely millions of others. This is because a pullout would probably be accompanied by a Kurdish war of secession in the north, which would be opposed militarily by Turkey and Iran, for separate reasons, but with similar deadly effect.

Only the Iraqis themselves can avoid such a disaster by making their new democracy work – and they continue to show themselves unable to do so. But perhaps an Iraqi reconciliation is possible. If the Dayton Accords could end a brutal ethnic war in Bosnia that left hundreds of thousands dead, a similar formula could be worked out between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, with international backing.

The U.N. should immediately sponsor marathon negotiations to produce a Sunni-Shiite compromise, to be ratified by concerned countries, including Iraq’s neighbors. This could show the way back from the brink.

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