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The appetite for victory: Can we get hungry by September?

HOPE CAN come suddenly from the oddest directions. It can also be just as quickly dashed. But quickness to seize upon it can, if nothing else, be a measure of how badly we want it — and need it.

Page A4 of Thursday’s paper was topped with this proclamation: “U.S. shows appetite for victory.” I hadn’t encountered such an encouraging headline in quite a while. But my joy was short-lived: It was about an American winning the world title for eating the most hot dogs in a 12-minute period (66), defeating six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi of Japan.

Take whatever satisfaction and pride from that you can. I’m still hoping the nation develops an appetite for something that it might find harder to choke down.

Lower on the same page was the subject I was thinking of: President Bush, in speaking to a Fourth of July National Guard gathering, said victory in Iraq “will require more patience, more courage and more sacrifice.”

The bitter irony of Iraq is that we have far more reason to have confidence in the troops’ courage and willingness to sacrifice than in the public’s patience.

“However difficult the fight is in Iraq, we must win it,” Mr. Bush said. “We must succeed for our own sake.”

He’s right. He might not be right about much else, but he’s right about that.

If you go to, you’ll find this headline on an item I heard over my clock radio as I was waking Thursday morning: “Military: Iraq strategy can work, over years.” Below that is a blurb: “Most military strategists say it is a feasible plan, but it could take three to five years to see results.”

Exactly. And how far off is the September update on the surge? Hmmm. Not nearly far enough.

NPR Defense Correspondent Guy Raz reported the following regarding the surge:

“(T)here are signs of its working.” But “the lifeblood of the strategy requires two main elements — commodities that commanders don’t really have, which is time, and troop strength.”

So much for military reality. He then switched to political reality, which is far more dire: “Ultimately, of course, with pressure coming down from Congress and the American public, military commanders in Iraq know that they... simply may not have those commodities.”

He expects the Pentagon to try to play down expectations of Gen. David Petraeus’ September report as “make or break,” and it should.

But we seem to lack the appetite for any such dish as patience. The general’s subtext for the September report is that Congress and amorphous “public opinion” will view it with the following attitude: Are we done? Can we go now? Few seem prepared to conclude: OK, this can work, but it’s going to take a lot more time.

With multiple presidential candidates already reinforcing the “are we there yet?” mood, there’s just no way that the folks in TV land are going to suddenly adopt patience as their operative mode, and give military commanders the time that they need. And yet that patience, that appetite, is something we must develop.

Unfortunately, the president keeps telling us this. That would be an odd way to put it in any other historical context, but in 2007, our commander-in-chief is the one guy least likely to persuade the public to do something it doesn’t want to do (which is the definition of leadership).

Here’s how bad things are: The candidate for 2008 most clearly identified with his determination to provide commanders with the time and troop strength they need to succeed is increasingly dismissed as politically nonviable because of that. In case you’ve been living in a spider hole, I’m referring to John McCain.

Mind you, pretty much all of the serious Republican candidates say we’ve got to win, we can’t back down, etc. But they have the luxury of engaging the issue no more deeply than the usual Republican national security swagger. Sen. McCain has the problem of being specifically identified with what it will take to succeed, and what not backing down truly means, so all the “smart” analysts say he’s in trouble. And in politics, when they say you’re in trouble, you’re in trouble.

That’s the big difference between what the military does and what politicians do — the military deals with ultimate reality: Apply force here, don’t apply it there, and here are the results. It’s an elemental equation — kill or be killed; win or lose. There’s no denying such reality. Only on the playground does “Bang! You’re dead!”/“No, I’m not!” work.

In politics, from the now-smokeless back rooms to the woman on the street, what is said becomes reality, because if the public has no appetite, the military isn’t allowed that critical, real-world element of time.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written many discouraging things lately about Iraq. So I was encouraged this week to see him state again a simple truth that he had set forth often back when he was more optimistic: “Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.” And in this case, “it is still in our national interest to try to create a model of decent, progressive, pluralistic politics in the heart of the Arab world.”

The very mess that we have looked upon in Baghdad and the surrounding country is our preview of what real failure will look like. Only two things will turn that “mess” into success — time and troop strength.

But the only way our troops will receive those two elements — as essential to victory as bullets and training — is if America works up the appetite before September. That’s a huge if, but it’s the only hope we, and Iraq, have.

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