As expected, the Iraq Study Group Report wants to score the tying goal by equivocating neither a way to “win” or to “lose” in Iraq or in the war on terrorism. Al Qaeda blew up the World Trade Center, its godfather Bin Laden escaped, and its “heart” in Baghdad has persuaded the American public to lose patience with the war. Iran has dodged the United Nations’ request to stop its nuclear program, it waged war against Israel through Hezbollah, and has taken Southern Iraq by proxy. America, to its credit, has captured and put Saddam on trial, and helped the Iraqis have three full and fair elections and ratify a permanent government.

Score 3 to 2.

As Jim Baker and his cohorts, Democrats and Republicans alike, come down from their contemplative mountain to tell us how to get out of Iraq without “winning” or “losing,” the received wisdom in Washington is that the American agenda in Iraq (and, by implication, in the war on terrorism), is in the throes of defeat and needs “correction.”

Let’s scrutinize the advice provided by the Baker-Hamilton group. The primary thrust is to begin a phased redeployment of the 150,000 American troops in Iraq, leaving the rest for training and protection purposes. Whether that is a realistic timetable or not, a redeployment of American troops to areas outside the urban theater of sectarian conflict makes sense for many reasons: it will lessen the chances for American casualties; it will allow the Iraqis to test their fighting units; and it will reduce the political clamor in Washington for “total withdrawal now/”

What about talking to Iraq’s neighbors, as suggested by the report? Sure, why not. Vice President Cheney’s short visit to Riyadh last week and his discussions with Saudi King Abdullah plus Bush’s discussion with Jordanian King Abdullah seem to indicate that the administration hasn’t made up its mind on which axis to push: the Riyadh-Amman-Arab axis (“Sunni” axis) or the Teheran-Damascus-Hizbollah (“Shia”) axis. Both courses are fraught with uncertainty. The Arab axis fears a resurgent nuclear Iran but cannot afford to alienate the Shia of Iran who enjoy close ties with the Shia of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The Iran axis, however, is antithetical to the West, flush with the “victory” of its proxies in Lebanon, is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, but knows that a Shia-dominated Iraq will not necessarily be an automatic satellite of Iranian interests

But why should we talk to these regimes? What is our advantage? Bowing to the blackmail of terror-aiding states like the regimes in Damascus and Teheran only confirms their impression of American weakness, or as the Baathist insurgents and al Qaeda claims of American desperation and defeat.

Both Syria and Iran have hugely contributed to the sectarian war raging in Iraq and therefore must not be rewarded by giving them an even bigger hand in Iraq’s future. If we talk, and that is truly a big “If”, we must lay down our terms and make it abundantly clear that they will pay a price for non-cooperation.

Will the Americans be drawn in the sectarian war if we don’t get help from the likes of Syria and Iran? Not if we don’t want to.

A gradual redeployment from the major cities in 2007 while simultaneously strengthening the wherewithal and the resolve of the duly-elected Iraqi government (for example, by encouraging the formation of a technocrat government in Baghdad), will allow us to concentrate on our main task: defeating the Baathist-al Qaeda coalition (the so-called insurgency) thus providing a chance for the Iraqis to build a viable, representative government in Iraq. Better still, simultaneously, we should augment our forces to a level that would smash the insurgency to the point when its Sunni Baathist leadership abandons its al Qaeda allies and accept its status as a minority in Iraq. At the same, we should demand from that the Iraqis bear the entire brunt of dealing with the militias that compose the main sectarian retaliatory fuel for Baathist aggression.

Such a dual policy of clearing and holding the major strongholds of the terrorists, mainly by strengthened American forces, and disbanding and controlling the militias, mainly by Iraqi forces, will lead us to our goal of a viable Iraqi state within two-three years.

If we do any less, we will be condemning our democratization project in the Middle East to failure thus inviting our enemies to pursue us all the way to Washington, D.C. As the Democrats wake up from the euphoria of the elections, they must realize that this is not a simple question of troop withdrawals: Iraq is now the primary battleground of all of the Middle East’s terror networks.

You can fault this administration for many things in its conduct of the war in Iraq but one thing is clear: when push comes to shove, they don?t abandon their friends and will not throw away our sacrifices and those of our allies just because the polls, or James Baker, Lee Hamilton, et al say so.