Republicans on Capitol Hill have begun their come-to-Jesus negotiation period with President Bush regarding the Iraq war -- an engagement that has always been a necessary prerequisite to bringing an end to the whole sad affair.
What this means is that, sooner or later, Democrats will be perceived as having definitively won the fight over getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. And as distant as that prospect may be at the moment, it's not too soon to think about what comes next. (The kind of thinking that would have been a helpful exercise in advance of the war itself!) While the war has been Bush's, whatever follows an American withdrawal will be the Democrats', and it will not be peace and it will not be pretty. That's why the diplomatic solution that Democrats keep urging on the president is, in fact, what they should quietly begin to pursue right now themselves. Nancy Pelosi's much-maligned trip to Syria was a good first step.
Despite the ongoing wrangling over the war supplemental and the dissension in the Democratic ranks about how to deal with the president, it is nervous Republican behavior that is changing the dynamic. We now see Bush sending signals that he may sign a bill with Democrat benchmarks included: "One message I have heard from people from both parties is that the idea of benchmarks makes sense, and I agree," Bush said Thursday during a briefing at the Pentagon.
While most Republicans long ago stopped defending the war itself, they have remained publicly steadfast behind the president in his determination to continue waging it. This week that façade began to crumble, almost in direct response to the Democratic strategy of forcing votes and debates to steadily build pressure on the administration and its allies in Congress.
In the middle of what was supposed to be a White House veto power-play on the funding bill, House GOP leader Roy Blunt allowed that the president did not have an open-ended commitment of support from his party on the Hill.
Then on Wednesday, a group of moderates known as the Tuesday Group went to the White House to fill in the blanks. Their message amounted to: We have to run for re-election next year; you don't, and this war is killing us. “It was a remarkable conversation,” Virginia Representative Tom Davis said of the meeting. You can bet it was, and you can bet there are more of them to come. This is how the war ends, with the GOP in Congress telling their president that all the energy in the country is for withdrawal.
The president's problems on Iraq are immeasurable, a fact that (as I've mentioned before) gives Democrats a huge margin of error in dealing with him. But the depth of his troubles emerges clearly from the most recent CNN poll. By a double-digit margin, Americans says they would prefer to have the Congress, led by Democrats, making policy on Iraq instead of the president. It seems clear that the country would fire the Commander Guy if they could.
Which brings us back to the need to plan ahead. Barack Obama has a line in his campaign stump speech about the need to be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were reckless getting in." For Democrats, this needs to be more than just a line. There is little denying that the aftermath of an American withdrawal will be at least as messy and violent as current conditions. The benefit of not having Americans in the middle of the carnage will not obscure the hard questions about who is responsible for bringing it to an end. The solutions will require pressure on our friends and negotiations with our enemies in the region. There is no peace in Iraq without responsible action and cooperation from Riyadh and Cairo and Amman. There is no peace in Iraq without convincing Syria and Iran that stability in the region is in their best interest as well.
So while the Republicans in Washington are trying to figure out how to end their war, the Democrats should begin thinking about how to secure some peace. It would be a good audition for the next Secretary of State.