The new Democratic proposals for Iraq may eventually be weakened or killed, but in one stroke they have transformed a many-sided debate about the conflict into a sharp-edged argument about the endgame.
Ever since the midterm election signaled deepening public unhappiness with the war, Republicans have urged a push toward victory while Democrats have complained about the administration’s course but not gathered around a single alternative.
Now, the Democratic mainstream has made its decision and offered the public a choice: Follow the president’s plan to use U.S. combat troops indefinitely, or shift American soldiers to a secondary role and begin withdrawing them.
President Bush and Republican loyalists believe the public, despite its unhappiness with the war, will stop short of trying to intervene in the management of the war in a way they say risks defeat.
“This is like Lyndon Johnson, picking targets for the Air Force in Vietnam. The public won’t go for it,” one senior House Republican aide predicted.
But the Democratic leadership, after weeks of a shifting intramural argument, has decided that the best indicator of America’s mood came in the November election.
Ever more Americans indicate they are eager to get out now. A USA Today-Gallup poll released this week showed that 60% favor setting a deadline for U.S. troops to leave by the end of next year.
As public opposition has grown, pollsters say it has been a general rule of American history that public support for wars erodes steadily -- and irreversibly -- as time passes.
“The Democrats are offering a clear choice; they have found their brand,” said a second congressional aide, who declined to be identified under office rules. “They’re now the ‘out soon’ party, if not the ‘out now’ party.”
The Democratic proposals reverse roles they and the president have had for months. Bush has been able to argue that he offered a specific plan while congressional critics offered only vague criticism.
Now the Democrats have staked out a specific position while the administration peers into the uncertain future with an open-ended commitment. That puts Bush under new pressure to tell the public which way he will go next.
The recast debate on Iraq has other undeniable political overtones.
For starters, it will have immediate effects on the presidential race -- building newfound pressure on candidates to argue for or against withdrawal.
And although the shift answers a clamor from the Democrats’ restless left wing, advocates of the House and Senate proposals have settled on a course close to the centrist war plan offered last year by a bipartisan study panel.
The Iraq Study Group urged that combat troops be pulled back from Iraq by early 2008, but that other forces remain in the country to train local units, protect borders, provide logistics and intelligence support, and fight terrorism.
The Republicans and Democrats on the Iraq Study Group, and other private experts, believed that a U.S. troop contingent half the size of the current 141,000 could help control the chaos in Iraq and be politically acceptable in the United States.
The House Democrats would give the president two opportunities to stave off -- but not prevent -- a pullback of U.S. troops. But even to delay it, Bush would have to certify that the Iraqis are moving toward key “benchmarks,” such as training their forces and striking needed political deals to build a new government.
It would be optimistic to expect the Iraqis to pass the tests. The State Department’s senior advisor on Iraq, David M. Satterfield, reiterated Thursday that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had far to go to complete the political deals needed for a crucial reconciliation among Iraq’s warring sectarian groups.
Maliki promised U.S. officials last year that he would reach several of the key benchmarks by early this year. But their completion is still not in sight. And U.S. officials acknowledge that in any case, Maliki doesn’t have complete control over the process.
Although the Democrats have shifted the battleground, it may soon shift again.
Administration officials and military commanders say they expect to have a sense by the end of the summer whether Bush’s “surge” plan has succeeded in suppressing sectarian violence in Baghdad.
At that point, the debate is likely to intensify anew. If the surge has clearly failed, growing numbers of antiwar lawmakers will push for still-stronger steps to try to wind down U.S. participation.
But if Bush can argue that the increased troop commitment has succeeded -- even partially -- he may push to extend it, igniting a confrontation.
Some lawmakers may push to halt war funding. But given the public’s reluctance to cut off support for troops, it may be more likely that Congress will pass stronger antiwar resolutions to build pressure on the White House.
Democrats “will keep groping toward a resolution that gets enough support to pass, that lays out markers and that makes a formal expression of Congress’ sense that the policy is not working,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.