A Timetable By Any Other Name

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 22, 2008; 12:31 PM

In agreeing to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraqi cities by June, and from the rest of the country by 2011, President Bush has apparently consented to precisely the kind of timetable that, when Democrats called for one, he dismissed as "setting a date for failure." Bush can call it an "aspirational goal" until he turns blue, but a timetable is exactly what it is, thank you very much.

Bush has repeatedly warned that politics and public opinion should have no role in the decision about when to leave Iraq, but apparently he just meant American politics and public opinion. A clear majority of Americans has favored a withdrawal timetable for several years now, putting anti-war Democrats in control of Congress in 2006.

Bush ignored them. But in the end, he bowed to the will of the Iraqis' elected representatives. After five and a half years of occupation, it was their turn to put a gun to Bush's head: The timetable was the price they demanded for agreeing to let American troops remain in the country beyond the expiration of a United Nations mandate in December.

Bush's acquiescence pulls the rug out from under Republican presidential candidate John McCain, whose position on Iraq was largely identical to Bush's -- pre-backflip. In some ways, the new timetable is even shorter than the one proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

So how is this not exactly what Bush had previously decried as an invitation to disaster? The White House line will be that the timetable is still somewhat conditional -- and only possible because the situation on the ground has improved.

But Bush's real accomplishment here is that he has stalled long enough that none of the deadlines he has now agreed to will be on his watch. This will all be somebody else's problem.

It is hypothetically possible that an American pullout on this timetable will leave behind a peaceful, democratic and pro-Western Iraq. One can certainly hope. But it seems more likely that the sectarian fissures opened by the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation will once again explode into violence as soon as U.S. troops -- and U.S. payments -- stop creating an artificial sense of stability.

And then, of course, there's Bush's own histrionic prediction. "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing," he said last May. "All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq. I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

So the next big question is this: How will Bush explain this turnaround when he finally emerges from his Crawford vacation? Will he try to downplay its significance? Or will he actually suggest that the job is nearly done in Iraq? That would be a bold move indeed, but not one with a lot of evidence to support it.

The Coverage

Stephen Farrell writes in the New York Times: "The United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011 if conditions in Iraq remain relatively stable, according to Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating a security accord governing American forces there.

"The withdrawal timetables, which Bush administration officials called 'aspirational goals' rather than fixed dates, are contained in the draft of an agreement that still must be approved by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders before it goes before Iraq's fractious Parliament. It has the support of the Bush administration, American and Iraqi officials said. . . .

"[T]he accord indicates that the Bush administration is prepared to commit the United States to ending most combat operations in Iraq in less than a year, a much shorter time frame than seemed possible, politically or militarily, even a few months ago. President Bush and many leading Republicans, including the party's presumptive nominee for president, Senator John McCain, had repeatedly dismissed timetables for pulling out of Iraq as an admission of defeat that would empower America's enemies.

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