Take charge

March 09, 2007

The proposal by the Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives to set a timeline for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq - one that would probably extend well into next year - contains a certain amount of common sense and an excess of caution. That's understandable, but disappointing.

The Democrats are clearly nervous about simply pulling the plug on the war, in all likelihood unleashing a very ugly wave of heightened violence in Iraq and perhaps beyond - and in all certainty setting themselves up to take more of the blame than they deserve for the whole misbegotten enterprise having gone from bad to worse.

As many as 70 Democratic members of the House say they are willing to assume responsibility for the war, and take that risk. They want to bring the troops home by the end of this year. Period.

The leadership plan, on the other hand, is crafted with the idea of demonstrating that this will still be President Bush's war, even as it attempts to force his hand. It would require him to certify to Congress in July and again in October that the Iraqi government is meeting certain benchmarks toward a political resolution of the violence there. If he cannot, the withdrawal would be set in motion. Moreover, he would be forced to make an acknowledgment every time new troops were sent to Iraq without proper equipment or training.

But this is what Democrats should ask themselves: After four years of deterioration and war, what are the chances that another year will turn things around?

It's not entirely out of the question. Gen. David H. Petraeus, new to the job, is highly regarded, and mindful that any solution in Iraq will in the end be a political, and not military, one. Much the same could be said for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. That the Democrats have taken control of Congress puts significant pressure on the administration to do better. New diplomatic contacts with Iraq's neighbors hold out promise.

But those are straws to clutch at. The war in Iraq has been an unfolding disaster. Murderous hatred runs deep, the government is highly compromised, and the U.S. military mission is caught in the middle of several overlapping conflicts. Eighteen months more of that is far too many. Congress can give the president a decent interval to show that his "surge" is working, but it should insist on fundamental, thorough improvement by July, or else the Americans start to come home. That might even give the diplomatic efforts more of an impetus.

Democrats in Congress seem to be shying away from a confrontation with the president and hoping the voters don't notice. They should show leadership instead.

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