Special Report

Turning the Timetables

The Democrats' premature withdrawal symptoms.

By 11.20.06

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WASHINGTON -- It came as no surprise that Democrats wasted no time in drawing on their electoral victory to press for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Somewhat surprising, however, is the apparent logic in their argument.

"The point of this is to signal to the Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over and that they are going to have to solve their own problems," Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) was quoted in the New York Times as saying.

Over the last several years, many Democrats have parroted a statement that Colin Powell allegedly made in the lead-up to the war: "If you break it, you own it."

And break it we did. America "broke" Iraq when it ousted Saddam Hussein's regime and disbanded the Baathist military. Now, in accordance with the second precept of this axiom, coalition forces are fixing what they "own," though not as rapidly as most people would like.

Last month General George Casey predicted that it would take 12-18 months for the Iraqis finally to be able to provide their own security.

But Democrats insist that this happen sooner. Despite what generals say about conditions on the ground, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) demands that "redeployment" begin "within the next few months." If this were to happen, Congress would in effect be enacting Sen. John Kerry's (D., Mass.) failed amendment this summer that called for withdrawal by July 1, 2007 -- an amendment that was rejected 13-86. But backed by new congressional majorities, Democratic politicians now feel entitled to run, if not win, wars.

Kerry's amendment contended that setting a timetable will "further a political solution in Iraq" and "encourage the people of Iraq to provide their own security." Although the amendment failed, the thinking behind it persists.

The thinking is that a specific deadline will somehow "motivate" Iraqi leaders to finish the nasty and onerous task of rebuilding their security forces and infrastructure, at which point they will instinctively proceed with do-it-yourself democratic reforms. Their instructions: Be creative.

But if a timetable is such a good idea for Iraq, why isn't it also for Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is not yet a Jeffersonian pantisocracy, either. The bright spot in its economy is its opium trade. Taliban remnants continue to resist democracy and modernity, as well as any law that permits women (and men) to wear miniskirts. Even with the situation there far from perfect, virtually no one is calling for an end date to U.S. occupation. Many Democrats actually advocate, at least rhetorically, devoting more funding and more troops there (even though Karzai's government has had more time to get its act together than Maliki's has). Both parties seem to agree that threatening to abandon the country by a certain date will not help Afghanis help themselves.

But when it comes to Iraq, Democrats want to turn the timetables. One year ago, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) introduced a bill dubbed " End the War in Iraq Act of 2005," which would prohibit funding for U.S. troops deployed in Iraq. As of now, the bill has 18 cosponsors, but that number may increase once post-election aspirations of bipartisan moderation fade and Democrats become emboldened to "do something" about an issue their base feels so passionate about.

EVEN IF THE ACT DOES NOT PASS, the question -- to fund or not to fund -- is sure to be raised under a Democratic Congress. "First order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy," Levin said less than a week after the elections. "The people spoke dramatically, overwhelmingly, resoundingly to change the course in Iraq, in a message that was heard around the world."

That message was unfortunate. Already public support for the war is abysmal. Any legislative efforts to deny crucial military assistance to a country transitioning from totalitarianism to daily car bombings will only compound the difficulties facing Iraqi leaders, as they try to determine whether to carry on with constitutional governance, a slow and arduous process, or to cut deals with militia leaders in case the Americans are no longer around to help fix what they "broke." To make an obvious point, any act that includes the words "End the War" in its title does not send a reassuring message to those fighting to end the war by winning it. It sends one signal: an exit sign.

This doesn't seem to worry many Democrats. "It's their problem more than it's our problem," explains Sen. Reid.

In 1985, as Congress was debating whether to continue funding the democratic resistance in Nicaragua, critics of the Reagan administration argued repeatedly that whatever happened in Nicaragua "is not America's problem." Rep. John Murtha (D., Penn.), however, protested this line of thinking. On June 12, 1985, he warned lawmakers that refusing aid to our allies, the Contras, was dangerous because doing so would send a mixed signal of U.S. intentions. Speaking on the House floor, he said: "There is nothing worse than sitting in a foxhole waiting for somebody to bring you aid…and in the meantime you have a Congress 12,000 miles away that is trying to decide your fate. You cannot operate a war that way. You cannot operate any kind of an operation like that."

Obviously Murtha's thinking has changed. Now he wants Congress to decide an entire country's fate. Iraq is not Nicaragua, certainly; but the signals Washington sends are no less important today than they were twenty years ago. If anything, they are more so.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. Military Governor in occupied Germany, proposed a timetable of his own: "We should remain fifty years," he said, adding that if the Europeans believed we would, "we probably would finish the job in five." There's an idea for today's Democrats. How about penciling 2056 into their calendars?

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.