If nothing else can be said for Robert Gates, he seems to have learned that the appearance of honesty is preferable to blatant attempts at deception. Asked at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee whether he believes that the United States is “winning” the war in Iraq, Gates said no.

That forthright admission contrasted sharply with the response of President George W. Bush when a reporter posed the same question at his Oct. 25 press conference. “We’re winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done,” declared the president. He made those claims almost two weeks before the midterm election and exactly two weeks before his sacrifice of Donald Rumsfeld, but his press secretary reiterated them after Gates’ moment of truth.

During his confirmation hearing, Gates also offered a sensible review of the worst mistakes since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, from the initial failure to deploy an adequate number of coalition troops to the excessive reprisals against former members of the deposed dictator’s Baath Party and the reckless demobilization of the Iraqi army.

Yet despite his thoughtful tone and refreshing candor, there is little reason to believe that his arrival at the Pentagon will mark a significant change in American policy toward Iraq. Nor will the bipartisan mush emerging from the Iraq Study Group, which included Gates until his nomination was announced, promote useful new directions. For as the nominee dutifully noted in his testimony, the president will remain in charge no matter what Gates thinks or says. And so far, the president shows no sign of adopting a realistic attitude toward this tragic Middle East misadventure.

Indeed, the Bush administration essentially refuses to deal with the most basic issues in Iraq, preferring to pretend that the main obstacle to progress is the level of training provided to that nation’s new army and police forces. The problems are much more fundamental than techniques or tactics, beginning with the conflict between the president and the most powerful Iraqi politicians over the future shape of the Iraqi state.

There is not much reason to believe that the leaders of Iraq’s ethnic and religious factions, having incited their followers into a civil war, share the Bush vision of a democratic, unified and moderate nation that governs and defends itself. Nor is there much reason to think that coalition troops encourage Iraqi leaders to resolve their differences peacefully.

Instead, the various Shiite and Sunni factions use the American presence as leverage against each other, without hesitating to denounce the U.S. occupation whenever the urge comes over them. A timetable for withdrawal of the coalition troops may be the only demand agreed to by all parties (except the Kurds), as well as the great majority of Iraqi citizens. War enthusiasts in Washington, such as Sen. John McCain, still insist that we should send more troops rather than start to bring them home, ignoring the inconvenient shortage of additional Marines and soldiers ready for combat.

The latest glimmer of an exit strategy appeared, of all places, in a curious classified memo authored by Rumsfeld, of all people, that someone leaked to the New York Times. While several senators wondered why he had neglected to reveal his urge to change course over the past several months, Rumsfeld’s tardy list of policy options included at least one potentially useful suggestion. The United States might just start to pull out some troops, he wrote, “so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.”

What Rummy’s silly phrase could mean is placing the withdrawal of U.S. troops on the bargaining table in broader negotiations — not only among Iraqi factions, but also between Iraq and its neighbors. Convened under the aegis of the Iraqi government, formal talks could bring together the armed factions, including representatives of the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias, with the promise that a cease-fire and settlement would lead to a timetable for American departure. Similar discussions could also take place between the Iraqi government and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, with the same incentive for those states to assist in peacemaking. That might allow the United States to leave Iraq without making undue concessions to the Iranians and Syrians.

Whether a negotiated exit can be achieved is uncertain, of course, and perhaps unlikely. But that is the best way out of a war that our leaders have been forced at last to admit we are not winning.

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