The Deja Vu to Avoid on Iraq

Following the undeniable mood of the country, a lot of political energy in Washington is now invested in the question of how we disentangle from the mess that is Iraq. For Democrats, who rode that mood to majority status in the Congress last year, the question is one of speed -- how quickly we can start bringing American troops home.

For Republicans, who have stood steadfastly by their president and paid a dire political price, the urgency comes in saving face, a scenario they like to think of -- or at least refer to -- as victory. The political contortions all around are notable, but the basic desire to get out of Iraq is fairly widespread (extending, I think, even to the White House, which has allowed itself no avenues to admit such a thing).

It must be clear to both sides, however, that neither a quick exit nor victory in any recognizable form is possible in Iraq. As a result, the war as a political issue is increasingly a project of managing the expectations of the parties' respective political bases.

That was abundantly clear in the negotiations over the revised version of the vetoed Iraq supplemental this week. The president, so deeply in trouble with the country and with his own party, had a chance to beat up on Democrats who have had all the momentum in recent months.

Democrats, seeking to live to fight another day, decided that it would be better to endure the headlines about capitulation, caving, and losing now rather than go into the Memorial Day recess with the funding bill unfinished and face GOP taunts about them going on vacation without taking care of the troops. So a deal was struck: One that, for Democrats, acknowledges the limits of trying to legislate an end to the war, and, for Republicans, offers a rare moment of triumph.

A debate remains over who won and who lost. The amount of Democratic pork in the bill throws that issue hugely into question. But as we go into the Memorial Day post-game show, that may not be the most important question facing the country. Though it seems backward-looking, there may be no better approach to finding an exit strategy for Iraq than to have an honest examination of how we got in.

One can quibble about which factors were the most dominant, but there is little argument that Iraq was the result of a remarkable confluence of political and social forces: a hyperactive ideology on the part of the administration, an unshakable timidity from congressional Democrats, blind loyalty to the president from the congressional GOP, and a country so bruised by 9/11 that it found itself incapable of sifting through arguments. Mistakes followed.

Now lurking in the framework of the current Iraq debate are some of the most defective and dangerous elements that led us into the war in the first place: bull-headed administration policies that ignore the facts on the ground, Hill Democrats not entirely sure how and how much to confront the administration, and, still, a GOP congressional caucus that, by and large, stands by the president despite all that has gone awry.

Luckily, there are enough differences between the now and the then that one can be hopeful the mistakes will not be repeated. Democrats, empowered by the elections results, are very willing to confront the White House on this issue, and GOP solidarity is being sorely tested. More importantly, the American public has abandoned the president and his war, and are demanding greater accountability from everyone in Washington. But if the old ways were to re-emerge, getting out of Iraq could be as messy as getting in.

The outcome of the debate over the supplemental has made many suspect that the old Democratic cowardice is indeed creeping back in. It's true that the Democrats could have sent the president another bill with withdrawal timetables that he could veto. The president is weak. The country supports withdrawal and the base of the party is demanding it. "It's a complete capitulation to a failed president and a failed policy," Tom Andrews, the national director of Win Without War, told the Christian Science Monitor. And there is more disdain where that came from. But Democrats should not lose their cool.

In the end, they cannot stop the war themselves. Their only hope is to persuade the president that it is his only option. That will take time and a few GOP votes. Another veto would have bought them neither.