Deadline Dilemmas

The strange thing about the debate in Congress over a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq is that the objective political interests of the two parties are the reverse of their stated positions.

Republicans are facing a disaster in the 2008 election if the Iraq War continues unabated. But if the Democratic Congress ties the president's hands and forces a pullout, the Republicans would have an excuse for the war's failure, and their party could move on to focus the 2008 election on other issues. If GOP leaders could act on pure political self-interest, they would be secretly encouraging just enough defections by their own members of Congress to pass legislation requiring a pullout.

Conversely, if Democrats succeed in setting a deadline, they would be taking some responsibility upon themselves for what happens in the wake of a pullout, and they would lose the advantage of focusing the 2008 election on the war. The Democrats' political interest lies in demonstrating a determination to end the war without actually passing legislation to require a pullout.

For the time being, the Republicans are nearly united in playing their appointed roles as lemmings on a fatal march to the '08 precipice. They have sufficient votes in the Senate to stop any pullout requirement, and there is always the backup of a presidential veto. All the major Republican presidential candidates have lined up in support of the war and even of the "surge." But what will they call for after that? Like chess players caught in a trap, they seem to have no good options for their next moves.

The Democrats, in contrast, are in the fortunate position of doing both what they believe is right and what serves their political interest -- trying to end the war, but at this point without the votes in Congress that could actually cut off the requisite funds and authority.

For Democrats, the big danger in this situation is the illusion that a pullout from Iraq could end our troubles in the region. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Al-Qaeda grows in strength in nearby provinces of Pakistan. Iran has become more powerful and belligerent, and there is a risk of a larger regional Shia-Sunni war. Public opinion polls are registering high levels of approval for Democratic proposals in Congress partly on the basis of a mistaken impression that if we leave Iraq, we can put the whole mess behind us.

But that won't be possible. One of the reasons against invading Iraq was that the war would divert resources from the fight against al-Qaeda and perversely increase the risks of terrorism. One of the reasons for disentangling ourselves from Iraq is to pursue the fight against al-Qaeda more effectively. That is why a pullout has to be part of a more comprehensive diplomatic and military plan -- which, barring a miraculous turnaround before then, only a new president elected in 2008 will be able to carry out.

Paul Starr is co-editor of the Prospect.

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