Why Bush is Wrong About an Iraq Timetable

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President Bush outlines his plans for Iraq in Annapolis

In his speech in Annapolis Wednesday, President Bush went as close as he ever has toward outlining an exit strategy for U.S. troops in Iraq. But he again refused to set any kind of timetable for their departure, referring to those who advocate a deadline for withdrawal — such as Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha — as "sincerely wrong." Even as his speech laid the rhetorical groundwork for a shift in the U.S. strategy toward full-fledged Iraqification of the war, the President used the deadline debate as a blunt political instrument, subtly casting timetable advocates as cut-and-run defeatists. "Pulling our troops out before they've achieved their purpose," he said, "is not a strategy for victory."

The belief that setting a withdrawal deadline is akin to unilateral surrender isn't confined to the White House: In rejecting Democratic calls for a flexible timetable for withdrawal, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said last month that "it's irresponsible to tell the terrorists, who we know are waiting to take us out, what that timeline is." Britain's Economist magazine (an early and consistent supporter of the invasion) expressed doubts this week about "the Administration's ability to make Iraq work — ever," but nevertheless argued against setting a withdrawal timetable, which "would embolden the insurgents." Even the editorial board of the New York Times, a strident critic of the war, has so far refused to call for a deadline, saying that "a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be counterproductive."

There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of the anti-timetable camp. But on close inspection, many of the arguments against a timetable are highly speculative, thinly supported — and even, to borrow the President's words, sincerely wrong. And in its rush to cast a withdrawal timetable as a recipe for defeat, the White House risks wasting one of the few tools at its disposal to facilitate the U.S. leaving Iraq with anything that could be termed a victory.

Despite the Administration's caricatures, few advocates of a withdrawal timetable are calling for an immediate retreat. The Democratic-sponsored proposal rejected by the Senate this month would merely have required the President to come up with "estimated dates for the phased redeployment of the United States Armed Forces from Iraq...with the understanding that unexpected contingencies may arise" — language that would have given the commander-in-chief wide latitude to draw up a flexible timetable based on conditions on the ground. The proposal deliberately avoided any mention of a fixed deadline. But on Wednesday, Bush repeatedly referred to pullout timetables as "artificial," effectively refusing to be held to any kind of deadline at all. In his speech, the President neatly summarized the three main arguments against a deadline, then announced to the midshipmen that as commander-in-chief, America would never run from terrorist thugs — a classic Bush line that produced the day's most enthusiastic applause.

The trouble is, all three of Bush's arguments against a timetable are highly dubious. Take the first one: that setting a deadline would "send a message to the world that the United States is a weak and unreliable ally." Given that nearly every country whose troops remain in Iraq — including the U.K. — has signaled an intention to draw down or withraw their forces in 2006, it's hard to know which allies the President is talking about. If anything, setting a date for withdrawal could send a powerful message to allies in the region to take greater responsibility for helping to tame the insurgency, by making clear that the U.S. does not intend to bear the sole burden for Iraq's security indefinitely. And last month a cross-section of Iraqi leaders, backed by the Arab League, called on the Administration to set a timetable for withdrawal — signaling that the allies the U.S. is most worried about leaving in the lurch are actually endorsing the idea.

If Bush is off-base about the message a timetable would send to our friends, he is even less persuasive about what it would signal to America's enemies. He argues that setting a deadline would "vindicate the terrorists' tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder — and invite new attacks on America." While al-Qaeda would likely hail a U.S. pullout deadline as proof they had humbled the U.S., they're just as likely to use the continued U.S. presence in Iraq as a rallying point for luring more recruits to join the insurgency. Setting a deadline for withdrawal wouldn't on its own sap the jihadists' strength, but neither would it enhance their existing desire to attack the U.S. homeland. They're hardly lacking in motivation: — witness the carnage in London and Amman and Bali and everywhere else the terrorists have struck while the U.S. was staying the course in Iraq. And a timetable could even have the opposite effect on the psychology of Zarqawi and his minions, by undermining their stated intention of pinning down the U.S. military in an endless, bloody guerrilla war.

Bush's last argument against a timetable is probably his strongest — that setting a fixed deadline will encourage the insurgents to wait "long enough," conserve their energies until U.S. troops withdraw and then unleash hell all over again. Even some timetable advocates, such as the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, have expressed the same concern. But as former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb — who supports a "flexible" withdrawal plan — has argued, the idea that the hard-core insurgents would simply stop fighting if the U.S. outlined a plan to withdraw over a period of years is nonsense: doing so, Gelb points out, would allow the U.S. and Iraqis to consolidate and build public loyalty. Meanwhile, there's considerable evidence to suggest that at least some of the groups that currently make up the "nationalist" wing of the insurgency might be more inclined to lay down their arms and join the political process if they had some assurance that the U.S. really does intend to leave Iraq eventually.

Critics of a timetable rarely bring up its greatest potential benefit: that it would send an unmistakable message to the Iraqis that the hour is soon approaching when they will have to set aside sectarian squabbles and figure out how to save their country on their own. If the Iraqis do that, the U.S. may ultimately be able to claim peace with honor — which is about as close as we're going to get to declaring victory. And don't take my word for it. In his briefing at the Pentagon this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "It's Iraq's country. 28 million of them. They are perfectly capable of running that country. They're not going to run it the way you would or I would or the way we do here in this country. But they're going to run it." The worst a timetable would do is let them know when.