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Endgame on Iraq

THE SENATE has now joined the House of Representatives in setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in Iraq. Its date is a year from now -- March 31, 2008. The House’s deadline is Aug. 31, 2008.

The dates are arbitrary. The Senate’s language is nonbinding and more likely to be part of the war-funding legislation that reaches the White House. But because President Bush vows to veto any measure with a timetable attached, passage is purely symbolic. Amid all this political gamesmanship, however, some clarity may yet emerge.

The withdrawal language is wrongheaded. As we have argued before, it is bad precedent and bad public policy for Congress to attempt to micromanage military operations in Iraq. As Bush said Wednesday: “It makes no sense for politicians in Washington, D.C., to be dictating arbitrary timelines for our military commanders in a war zone 6,000 miles away.”

If the United States, through a last-ditch military effort combined with political initiatives, can quell the violence in Iraq and demonstrate progress, then a U.S. military presence for more than the congressionally approved year might be a good investment. But if the troop surge, after some months, fails to improve either the security or political situation, then a year would be too long to leave U.S. troops in Iraq.

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Although Congress’ stand may be irrelevant from a policy standpoint -- no troops will be withdrawn because of it -- it can still have practical value, placing additional pressure on the president to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government more involved in policing its own citizens. If you don’t make progress, Bush can tell Maliki, Congress may withdraw U.S. troops altogether. And then you’ll really be in trouble.

Unfortunately, the Maliki government appears incapable of winning credibility and support among Iraqis.

None of this is to say that Congress must sit by passively. If a majority of the people’s representatives conclude that the effort to stabilize Iraq has failed, then Congress should vote to cut off war funding. That is its constitutional privilege. But a willingness to wait even a few months to see the results of the surge strategy, followed if necessary by a meaningful threat to cut off funding for combat by a specific date, is more likely to focus Iraqi minds than the current, purely political, play.

The U.S. has a moral obligation (as well as a national interest) to leave Iraq as quickly as possible with a stable government in place. This resolution won’t end U.S. involvement in Iraq. But it may help persuade Iraqis to end the violence.

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