Big News On Iraq, Or Not?
The headline, when I saw it early this afternoon, nearly knocked me out of my chair: "Iraqi leaders call on U.S. to set withdrawal schedule." And the text of the story, reporting that an Iraqi government (and Arab League) sponsored "unity conference" of Sunnis and Shi'a in Cairo had called for a "timetable" for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops--accompanied by a sunny statement from the Iraqi Interior Minister saying it could happen by the end of next year--was even more startling. After spending months arguing with my fellow Democrats over the arcana of a "benchmarked withdrawal" as opposed to a "timetable withdrawal," my initial reaction was: Hell, that settles it for me.And I'm not the only one who reacted this way. Kos said: "Every person that opposes a US withdrawal timetable is now operating in direct opposition to the wishes of the Iraqi government."But when you drill a bit deeper into the news from Cairo, you discover that the "unity statement" did not specify any dates for the immediate, intermediate, or ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops. In other words, it called for a "timetable" without "times." In that respect, it tracked the Democratic Iraq resolution that was defeated in the U.S. Senate last week, which used the symbolic "T-word" without specifying any dates, though it did call on the administration to announce "estimated dates" for withdrawals based on the anticipated achievement of "benchmarks." (The successful Republican-sponsored resolution was nuanced to the point of sophistry: it urged the administration to announce a "schedule" for withdrawals, based on "benchmarks," but avoided the "T-word," which the administration tried to spin as a gigantic victory).I have no clue whether these words have the same meaning in Arabic as in English, but I do know that train timetables are a pretty universal phenomenon. Whether you are in Washington or in Baghdad, when you consult a "timetable," you don't want to discover that your train will leave the station at some point after it has arrived, when the equipment and the crew are ready and the passengers are loaded.One thing, and perhaps only one thing, is clear: up until now, the Bush administration has refused to acknowledge, much less embrace, any specific scheme of "benchmarks" for withdrawal of U.S. troops, beyond its general bromides that we'll leave when "the job is done" and when "Iraqis are able to provide their own security." And despite widespread hints that the Pentagon is already planning significant troop withdrawals next year, the Bushies have not only refused to talk about any "schedule" for withdrawal; they have in fact demonized anyone who tried to force them to do so.Presumably, that line of argument ended today. After all, 85 U.S. Senators (if you count those who voted for either Senate resolution last week) called for a benchmarked withdrawal and for the idea, if not the specifics, of a timetable or a schedule or whatever you wish to call it. Now the Iraqi government and a wide-ranging coalition of Iraqi political factions have done the same.Moreover, and this is probably the implicit compromise achieved in Cairo, everybody understands that the first big "benchmark" is the December elections in Iraq. If they are successful in creating a popularly-backed permanent government, with significant support from Arab Sunnis, then it will become a lot easier to talk about real "timetables" for the withdrawal of U.S.troops.In terms of domestic U.S. politics, the only problem then will be to deal with the likely administration flip-flop, whereby Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld suddenly embrace and even take credit for this development, while still attacking those who were "prematurely" calling for withdrawals, benchmarked or timed. But hey, that's a small price to pay for the possibility that we can get out of Iraq soon, without encouraging a civil war or a permanent terrorist outpost. It's not as though Bush's record is clean on Iraq even if he does draw down troops quickly, and his and his party's record on absolutely everything else richly deserves more attention.