Standoff on Iraq

Monday, April 16, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH and congressional leaders are due to meet this week to discuss possible compromises on strategy and funding for the war in Iraq. Neither side has been sounding conciliatory; that the talks are taking place at all may be due to the chorus of senior statesmen who have been pointing out that a standoff that delays funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will only hurt the country.

Unfortunately, the wise men themselves don't agree on a way out. Lee Hamilton, the Democratic co-chairman of the Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq policy, published an article on the opposite page last month that was supportive of a House plan to mandate the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq by September 2008. His Republican counterpart, James A. Baker III, followed with a piece opposing timetables or deadlines for the removal of troops, which are also written into the Senate version of the war funding bill.

The crucial difference between Mr. Bush and the Democratic leadership is quite similar to that between Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton. All share the goal of handing responsibility for Iraq to the Iraqi government and army and withdrawing U.S. combat forces as quickly as possible. The difference is whether the drawdown should happen according to a timetable drawn up in Washington and disconnected from events in Iraq, on the theory that a continuing American military presence won't much change the direction of events; or whether it should be linked to progress on the ground, in the hope that the United States still can influence events and leave behind an Iraqi regime capable of defending and sustaining itself.

One way out of the dispute is what Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton arrived at. Their bipartisan report set a date for the withdrawal of combat forces -- March 2008 -- but only as a goal. The Senate version of the spending bill adopts that approach, but it also mandates the beginning of a pullout four months from now. That would directly interfere with the military strategy being pursued by Iraq commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has said that he will not be able to judge whether the attempt to pacify Baghdad is succeeding until the end of the summer.

Fortunately some of the coolest heads in this discussion belong to Senate Democrats such as Barack Obama (Ill.) and Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Both have suggested that if Mr. Bush vetoes a bill containing a withdrawal mandate, as he has promised to do, Congress should nevertheless approve the war funding. Mr. Levin also has pointed to a plausible compromise: Congress would not mandate mandating troop movements but would affirm the nonbinding "benchmarks" section of the Senate bill. That requires Mr. Bush to report on whether Iraqi political leaders are meeting the goals that they have set for themselves -- such as agreeing on the distribution of oil revenue, repealing some sanctions against former members of the Baath Party, demobilizing militias and holding provincial elections.

An agreement by Mr. Bush and congressional leaders on such language would send a strong message to Iraqi leaders and help those trying to make the political deals happen. It's worth remembering, however, Gen. Petraeus's recent observation that "the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock." It's unrealistic to expect that Iraqi leaders will be able to meet the long list of benchmarks in the matter of months that both Congress and Mr. Bush are counting on. Gen. Petraeus said he was "trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit" and also "put a little more time on the Washington clock." That would be a good theme for Mr. Bush and the Democrats to discuss.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company