A Tale of Two Senators, From Virginia

Though they come from different political parties, oddly enough, two of President Bush’s most powerful critics call Old Dominion home.

It would have been unthinkable a year ago that both the senior and junior senators from the traditionally conservative Commonwealth of Virginia would become two of the most powerful critics of President Bush's Iraq War. John Warner has for years been regarded as a most loyal and dependable supporter of Republican presidents. Regarded as the conscience of the Republican Party, he is a man of decency, commanding huge respect, the natural successor to his distinguished former colleague Senator Barry Goldwater.

Until recently, Warner backed virtually all the White House decisions on Iraq. But now he, together with Republican Senators Norm Coleman (MN) and Susan Collins (ME), has offered a non-binding Senate resolution opposing the proposed surge of new U.S. troops into Iraq. This is a painful blow to the White House and demonstrates how serious Bush's problems are. Senator Chuck Hagel, a more maverick Republican, has already come out strongly against the surge, and other Republicans are likely to join the opposition in the coming days. Irrespective of what the Democrats do or say, once a rebellion within the Republican Party takes hold it will be difficult to stop.

On Iraq, Bush has one last chance. He is putting his money on General David Petraeus, the designated new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Petraeus has a stellar reputation, but ultimately it is not he who will decide the fate of America. That role belongs to Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the stiff and somewhat impenetrable prime minister of Iraq. How he behaves in the coming months will ultimately determine not only Petraeus' fate, but also that of the Bush presidency.

The junior senator from Virginia, the newly elected James Webb, defeated the incumbent Senator George Allen in a tightly fought campaign that was primarily about discontent with the Iraq War. Allen would have probably squeaked a narrow victory had he not made some stupid mistakes in his campaign. But Webb, a former Republican, comes to the Senate with impeccable credentials, including a family with a strong record of service for the country, including his own son, who is now scheduled for his second tour of duty in Iraq. In giving the official Democratic response to the president's State of the Union message, the junior Senator did not mince his words: "The President took us into this war recklessly, he disregarded warnings from the national security advisor during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the Army, two commanding generals of Central Command . . . and many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. The war's cost to our nation has been staggering."

These words reflect the sentiment of a majority of Americans at this point in time. Sooner or later Bush will have to accept that, absent a dramatic change in the situation on the ground in Iraq, he will once more have to re-think his strategy. He has so far rejected the Iraq Study Group's suggestions of diplomatic initiatives to include Iran and Syria. Virtually all the Democratic candidates for the presidency, while being tough on Iran, are arguing that engagement with the mullahs must be part of America's game plan.

The president argues that the United States cannot accept defeat in Iraq, but the way things are going we will have to define victory downwards. Now is the time to formulate a realistic definition of "success" that will be acceptable to the American people and to our closest allies in the region. This does not mean overnight withdrawal, but it will require a disengagement from the day-to-day confrontations between sectarian groups, particularly in Baghdad. The president's gamble is that we can ultimately win the battle for Baghdad. But that will happen only as long as we are prepared to pay an even higher price and stay in Iraq for a long time. It is unlikely the president will have the political support to stay this course.

Geoffrey Kemp is director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. He was Special Assistant to the President for the Middle East during the first Reagan Administration.

More National Interest Online coverage of the State of the Union:

Ali Allawi onIraq's State of DisUnion.

General William Odom on Middle East stability and the balance of power.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev on President Bush's untimely address.

Steve Clemons on the absence of a credible plan.

Paul J. Saunders on Bush's chimerical energy solutions.

Ximena Ortiz on the president's unique reality.

Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks on Bush's one last chance in Iraq.