by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Does anyone remember the so-called “Pottery Barn” principle? This was the concern Colin Powell voiced before the invasion of Iraq: that if you invade a country and end up breaking it, you are responsible for it. At the time, this idea seemed so farfetched to the Bush administration that it dismissed it. What could possibly go wrong with invading and occupying a country in the Middle East? Only those who were unpatriotic suggested the outcome could be a failed state.

Now the Bush administration is starting to admit Iraq is broken. Who is to blame? The Iraqis, of course. Democrats and Republicans alike parrot the idea that it is time for Iraqis to stand up and start doing their job as leaders of their country. You would think it was the Iraqi people who had overthrown Saddam Hussein’s regime and we had simply come to their aid when called. How quickly history is rewritten.

I guess if blaming the Iraqis gives President George W. Bush and Congress the political cover they need to get the United States out of this mess, then so be it. I just wish Bush would admit it is time for dramatic action. The planned “surge” seems to be no more than a delaying tactic. Another 21,000 soldiers might be able to return Baghdad to the level of violence it was experiencing in 2004. But then what? No one seems certain about the next step.

One thing does seem certain – the Iraq war will tear apart the Republican Party in 2007. Potential Republican presidential candidates want to see the war “resolved” in 2007 so they don’t have to run with Iraq as a main topic of the 2008 presidential campaign. Unfortunately for them, and for everyone else, four years of incompetent leadership can’t be fixed in a couple of months. Possible presidential candidate John McCain has already wed himself to the success of the “surge,” and other potential contenders are trying to triangulate their positions.

The Republican Party’s main problem is that the president and his political adviser, Karl Rove, don’t seem to want a resolution to the Iraq conflict in 2007. Politically, the Bush administration’s goal is essentially to stay the course until January 2009. Then, if Iraq works out well, Bush can claim credit for success. If the outcome isn’t good, he can blame his successor for screwing it up. Bush has neither said nor done anything to resolve the Iraq conflict by the end of his term in office. In 2005, Bush said, “I will not withdraw, even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.” In 2007, Laura and Barney will have some tough choices to make.

Compounding these problems for the Republicans is the fact that voters are starting to look closely at U.S. foreign policy during the last six years and are realizing this administration hasn’t been conservative at all. The death of President Gerald Ford has further drawn back the curtain on today’s “conservative” Republicans. In an interview embargoed until his death, President Ford said, “I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.” This statement from the grave has refreshed our memories about what a conservative foreign policy really sounds like.

The Republican Party has the most to lose in the next year. If the “surge” doesn’t work to contain the violence, the Bush administration might decide to escalate the war further – perhaps with attacks on Iran and Syria. In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson began escalating America’s involvement in Vietnam, Undersecretary of State George Ball warned “the party which seems to be losing will be tempted to keep raising the ante.” Raising the ante might be the way Bush and Rove think they can ride it out until January 2009.

If the Republicans are to survive 2007, they must face reality: There is no good way out of Iraq. They must acknowledge the fact that Iraq is broken and that it was a Republican administration and a Republican Congress that broke it. Otherwise, they will never be allowed inside Pottery Barn again.