It must gall President Bush. To keep hearing all your critics, in interminable unison, say that it's time to do something "different," but almost never to hear what that "different" approach might be-that is a special kind of torture assigned to leaders everywhere, but heaped in unkind measure on the president of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. I heard Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois say it three times in two days last week: "It's time to do something different," he said gravely, but never suggesting what the difference ought to be.
It took Sen. John McCain of Arizona-not always Mr. Bush's closest and most ardent supporter-to show himself brave enough to propose one of the few genuinely "different" approaches to hurry a victorious end to the war in Iraq. McCain suggested augmenting the present U.S. force by as many as five or 10 new military battalions of approximately 3,000 soldiers each. You don't have to have a vivid imagination to guess how that proposal, if it had come from the Bush administration any time during the last year or so, would have been received in Washington or by the mainstream media. And strangely, even though McCain is often a favorite of those dominant media types, they didn't give much play to his bold suggestion.
But the McCain proposal stood out from what all the other politicians and commentators were saying just because it was so specific. Like it or leave it, it came from someone ready not merely to be critical, but constructively critical.
The drumbeat of denigration aimed by others at the White House was more like a free-for-all. In football, there are penalties for hitting a quarterback when he's already down. But in this critical national discussion, there were no whistles and no flags were being thrown.
By no means least in the ugly scramble was the Iraq Study Group (ISG). That vaunted body of experts-at least by its media billing and ballyhooing-was supposed to make plain what Mr. Bush and his incompetent team had for so long obscured: a new discovery of the road out of the Iraqi wilderness. But if those 10 good people (and there were indeed some stalwarts among them) had nothing more to say than what they included in their 90-page report, they should have announced that to be the case early on, gone home, and saved the nation the bother of trying to understand a virtually empty proposal.
In other words, it would have served us better if the ISG had simply delivered this 49-word report: "The current administration has addressed a hard problem with energy and commitment. Not much seems to have worked-and the nation will have to decide over the next months and years who is to blame. But after reviewing the whole mess, we really don't have anything new to say."
What the ISG offered instead was little more than a "stay-the-course" recipe promenading as something new. Did it really take the small fortune invested in this effort to discover that "Iraq's neighbors are not doing enough to help Iraq achieve stability"? "Syria should control its border," says the ISG, as if maybe Mr. Bush had simply forgotten to tell the Syrians that up until now. The ISG hints that redeploying American troops around the perimeter of Iraq will seal off that hitherto porous border against invading insurgents. Did they think of using America's success in sealing off the Mexican border as a model to illustrate what might be done?
But even those who had suggested everyone should salute to the ISG, and that the Bush team likewise should sign on to its recommendations, seemed startled that there was so little that was new or helpful in all those pages.
It's easy to criticize. It's easy to pile on. Talk is incredibly cheap. Through these days of holiday feasting, President Bush is legitimately being called on to eat some pretty ample helpings of humble pie. But it isn't out of keeping with the spirit of the season to ask a few of his critics to take a few bites themselves-at least until they have something demonstrably tastier to offer.