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High Noon for General Will Kane

In the classic Western High Noon, desperate Marshall Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, tries to rally the fickle townspeople, his deputies—and his own wife. They have to stand up to the outlaws due into town for the final big shoot-out on the noon train. As the sweating Kane scrambles in vain to find supporters, he looks up constantly at the town clock tower to see the hour hand inching toward high noon.

Time is likewise running out on Gen. Petraeus in Iraq. Dozens of Democratic Senators and Congressmen were elected in 2006 on promises to end the war immediately—which Senate Democratic Leader and former war supporter Harry Reid has declared is already lost.

Petraeus must convince a good number of these liberal lawmakers to give the US military a final fifth year of war. He wrote the handbook on counter-insurgency, has an Ivy League PhD (with a thesis on the lessons of Vietnam), came in with a new Defense Secretary and Centcom commander, and was confirmed unanimously by the Senate Democrats. They are also not quite convinced that Petraeus is going to lose. So for now he has bought a few precious weeks until the Democrats’ clock strikes twelve this autumn.

But the Republican timetable is not much longer. A few Republican Senators at any time can join the Democrats to ensure their anti-war legislation becomes immune to both Senate filibusters and presidential vetoes. Senators like Richard Lugar or John Warner don’t want to see hard-won Republican constituencies completely vanish if we lose in Iraq. So they are distancing themselves from the war.

There are only so many more lives and billions of dollars and years the American people will sacrifice without assurance of victory. The result is that even Republican leaders demand that Petraeus win a vast war of counterinsurgency within a year when it has usually taken several in the Philippines, Malaysia, or Central America.

To keep their support for more time, Gen. Petraeus must somehow kill more of the terrorists, win over more of the Iraqis, and lose far fewer Americans in the process—and do all of that before the 2008 election so they can run on victory rather than stalemate.

The military itself has a clock. For the most part its planners support the idea of surging 30,000 more combat troops and going on the offensive against terrorists.

But with a much reduced military, ongoing commitments in Europe, the Balkans, Japan, and Okinawa, possible crises on the horizon with Iran and North Korea, and a war going on in Afghanistan, it can’t afford to maintain the surge levels forever.

The military’s concern is not so much the summer surge now, but how to translate its ongoing tactical success into permanent strategic momentum next year—at least to such a degree that it will allow incremental American withdrawal as confident Iraqis fill our places. Or as Gen. Petraeus himself is accustomed of asking from subordinates, “Tell me where this ends?”

Finally is the Iraqi clock. If Petraeus can convince Iraqis that more insurgency means only a bleak future of more bombings, beheadings, and random violence of the last four years, he can still keep a posse of supporters. And if he can show that power, water, sewage and government services are all improving as the violence subsides, even more will come out to join the Americans than fight them.

At the beginning of High Noon, everyone praised Marshall Kane as they did Gen Petraeus. Then as the clock ticked, they abandoned him, and hid back inside when the outlaws seemed invincible. At the end of the movie with the bad guys dead, the fickle public changed once more and cheered their Marshall on for a second time.

We the townspeople are watching Gen. Petraeus watch his various clicking clocks. It is hard to remember a senior US officer who was greeted with more acclaim than he when he took over command of the coalition in Iraq this February. Then as causalities mounted, and the insurgents kept staging bombings, his posse of supporters began to disappear and run for cover.

But if we stabilize Iraq, they will once again emerge to peep their heads out of their windows--as some already have for the moment-- and praise him as another William Tecumseh Sherman or Matthew Ridgeway who by feats of arms saved both an imperiled war effort and an administration in their eleventh hour.

No wonder then our Will Kane in Baghdad keeps his eyes always on the clock. How did High Noon end? With Marshall Kane victorious, but leaving town in disgust at his fair-weather friends he saved.

What If...

What would be the press reaction--if George Bush announced that he wanted to invade nuclear Islamic Pakistan? Or if he addressed a group of African-Americans and adopted a fake-black accent as if implying all spoke with flawed Southern-accented grammar? Or if he went to a Daily Kos convention and praised lobbyists? Or if he told a reporter that he hated a Congressman? Or if he said that our soldiers in Guantanamo reminded him of Nazis, Stalinists, and genocidal followers of Pol Pot? Or he said that Abu Ghraib was about the same as when Saddam's murderers ran it? Or if he said another Congressman reminded him of Hitler? Or he lost his temper and began yelling at Fox's Chris Wallace?