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In search of an Iraq exit strategy

Updated: Saturday, 27 August 2005, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK

In search of an Iraq exit strategy
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Texas
At the beginning of August, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier who died in Iraq, set up camp in front of President Bush's Texas ranch, vowing to stay there until he agreed to meet her. Justin Webb considers the impact her protest has had on US politics.

A few years ago, one of President Bush's neighbours gave me a tour of the outskirts of the presidential ranch.

The very fact that this can happen tells you a lot about the kind of place it is.

I have never banged on a door at Chequers, Mr Blair's country residence, but I assume the result would be unproductive and probably involve immediate escort from the premises.

In Crawford, Texas, I was shown into the back of a tractor trailer and taken off for a half-hour lurch through the dust.

Of course, the presidential compound and land are secure, and bristling with secret service men and electronic listening devices.

But, outside the perimeter of the ranch, this is rural Texas. There are shacks, there are rusting cars, there are other ranches.

There is dismal, hardscrabble landscape - flat and huge and visually unstimulating. And there are Texans, real Texans.

Gun culture

My guide that day stopped the tractor at one stage and pointed to a gloomy-looking house with a rotting porch and weed-encrusted driveway.

The president's neighbours are not... a bunch of city slickers

"Two brothers live there," he said. "[They] got drunk one night and had a fight. And one shot the other then hanged himself from the porch."

The engine was switched on and we lurched off.

The president's neighbours are not, in other words, a bunch of city slickers.

They are not sophisticated thinkers on world affairs, they are at home with guns.

I cannot imagine a more hostile environment in which to set up a peace camp.

And yet Cindy Sheehan has done it, and done it with huge success.

Though it is true that someone drove a truck over the encampment and someone else fired a gun in the air and told them to get back to where they came from.

Peace and love

But those predictable reactions have been trumped by other friendlier ones - culminating in an offer by one of the president's closest neighbours of a home for the camp in the safety of his land. A considerable snub to the most powerful man on Earth in his own backyard.

Cindy Sheehan's vigil has turned her into a media star
Why has this happened?

Texans have traditionally never believed in getting the troops out of anywhere, much the opposite.

Yet now, they have a "troops out" movement incubating in their midst, within spitting distance of the holiday home of the Lone Star state's favourite son.

There are earth mothers talking about love, hugging each other, swapping recipes for organic stews.

Americans - even Texans - are rethinking the Iraq war, indeed rethinking war itself as a tool of foreign policy.

All the opinion polls this summer have pointed in one direction - out of Iraq.

Not necessarily now, not necessarily tomorrow, but at a date that should be visible from here.

And where Mrs Sheehan and the public at large have led, the politicians of both main parties are following.

Financial drain

For the first time since the invasion, a member of the Senate has called for a date for withdrawal from Iraq, and suggested it should be the end of next year.

The next presidential election is only three years away. Over the next couple of years the potential candidates will begin to gather staff, gather money, sort out their policies, test the waters

Russ Feingold is not a maverick, he is a mainstream Democrat with presidential ambitions.

He has noticed the hugging in Texas and carved out what he plainly believes should be a politically advantageous position:

That America cannot afford to drain its security resources in Iraq for an unlimited period. There is other work to be done.

On the Republican side of the Senate, another man with presidential ambitions, Chuck Hagel, says simply: the longer we stay the more problems we are going to have.

Across the nation the opinion columns of the papers are beginning to give space to similar views and, in particular, to wonder whether the best hope now is for a downgrading of America's Iraq mission - from "bringing democracy" to "re-establishing stability".

That stability could be provided by an authoritarian Iraqi regime or by Iraq's neighbours, but once it is in place (the thinking goes) America could slip quietly out and hope for the best.

As one writer put it: "With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the US achieved in Iraq almost all that it had the capacity to achieve."

That view is seeping into the body politic of the US, with, I think, potentially seismic implications.

Testing the waters

The White House position to stay the course is fine when there is a course - a path leading to progress.

Every serious candidate (including those from Mr Bush's Republican Party) is going to have to have a plan to declare victory and get out of Iraq

But most Americans cannot see that path. And here is the clincher.

The next presidential election is only three years away.

Over the next couple of years the potential candidates will begin to gather staff, gather money, sort out their policies, test the waters.

I have already mentioned one of them, Russ Feingold, but others will join in the fray.

Assuming the Iraqi insurgency continues, it is conceivable that any of them could possibly win with the stay-the-course line employed by the Bush White House.

Every serious candidate (including those from Mr Bush's Republican Party) is going to have to have a plan to declare victory and get out of Iraq.

President Bush cannot look Cindy Sheehan in the eye and tell her that her son died because the White House messed up.

But a future president will.


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