What Warner really wants

Using the phrase “with all due respect” at the start of a sentence pretty much guarantees that what follows will not be very respectful.

Well, with all due respect, John Warner (R-Va.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and their colleagues have gotten more PR mileage out of less substance than any other senators in years.

Headline writers variously described the pair as “challeng(ing) Bush Iraq policy,” “press(ing) to change strategy in Iraq” and even “defy(ing) Bush on Iraq.” Vulnerable Republicans rushed for the cover provided by these two venerable statesmen, seeking headlines suggesting they too were taking on President Bush over a war that has now generated more opponents than Vietnam.

Before heaping praise on Warner, Lugar and their followers, it would be worth actually reading their resolution.

In short, it admits failure but requires no change in course, a position even less justifiable than that of the president, who at least deludes himself into believing progress is being made before deciding not to change course.

While Lugar and Warner admit failure, they refuse to embrace change.

In language that expressly refuses to make the view their own, they note the obvious — “It is widely recognized that there is no purely military solution to the situation in Iraq.” I doubt President Bush would disagree with that assessment for even a moment.

Warner and Lugar go on to reach a conclusion with which the president may well differ. They maintain that “the optimal outcome in Iraq … is not likely to be achieved in their near future” and that “sectarian violence is not likely to abate anytime soon.”

They even foresee “potential consequences [presumably negative consequences, though they avoid saying that] for U.S. abilities to respond to other national security threats.”

A damning windup — but what’s the pitch? “The safety and security of our military forces and our credibility in the region require that any military withdrawal or redeployment from Iraq be carefully planned and executed.”

Wait a minute. Read that again. The failures enumerated in six pages of “whereas” clauses do not require withdrawal or redeployment — only that any such move be carefully planned.

What do the senators require of an administration that has proven hell-bent on defying the express wishes of the American people and a majority of the U.S. Congress? They require the president “as a matter of prudence” to “consider all options.”

The real import of Warner-Lugar is that while the president can go on his merry way, doing whatever he wants, he must think about all the options — implying, of course, that until now the president has been imprudent and failed to consider the consequences of his actions.

In short, for the first time, the Warner-Lugar Republicans would require President Bush and his key advisers to think. While the critique is radical coming from Republicans, the remedy is banal.

In fairness, more than thinking is required; planning also makes the cut. The administration must develop plans for redeployment once having considered their consequences. There is absolutely no requirement for redeploying troops, no requirement to implement any plans — only a demand that plans be created. It shouldn’t require too much work, as they assure us the Pentagon already has plans for every contingency. Just dust them off and present them. But don’t bother implementing them; don’t bother redeploying our troops; don’t bother doing anything substantive at all. Just think and plan.

With all due respect, the headline writers should read a bit more carefully before heralding Republican senators as agents of change.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.