What's Missing From the New Timeline for Iraq

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Top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey (L), and US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (R) speak to the press in Baghdad, 24 October 2006.

The U.S. has finally had enough. In a press conference in Baghdad today, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey announced that the Iraqi government has agreed to a timeline to take over security responsibilities, quell sectarian violence, split oil revenues and negotiate a truce with the Sunni insurgents. According to Khalilzad and Casey, it will all take place within 18 months. And how does anyone know the Iraqis can achieve all that? Because we say they have to. "Iraqi leaders must step up," Khalilzad says, "to achieve key political and security milestones on which they have agreed."

Or else what? As encouraging as it is to hear U.S. officials express impatience with the fecklessness of the Iraqi leadership, what's still missing is any clear and meaningful explanation of what happens when the patience runs out. The only leverage the U.S. has to influence Iraqi behavior is the presence of 140,000 U.S. troops on the country's streets. Though the U.S. has no intention of getting in between the country's belligerent sects, the Iraqis know that a precipitous U.S. departure would open the gates of hell. So today's announcement provides the U.S. with an opportunity, if it is willing to seize it: now that the Iraqis have agreed to a "timeline," they should be faced with consequences if they fail to meet it. And that means saying that the U.S. will leave Iraq at the end of 18 months.

So why didn't Casey and Khalilzad do so? Their refusal to utter the "w" word reflects the broader lack of candor that still characterizes our debate about what to do in Iraq. The White House now says it intends to stop using the phrase "staying the course," and Democratic leaders talk about the need for a "new strategy," but neither is willing to publicly commit to a definitive plan — also known by the more politically perjorative phrase "timetable" — for getting U.S. troops out. In the Washington Post today, Richard Holbrooke argues for Bush to "disengage" from Iraq and seek a political compromise there, but rules out "a fixed timetable for U.S. withdrawal, since it would give away any remaining American flexibility and leverage."

But would it? Might the reverse be just as true? Wouldn't the establishment of a definitive departure date give the Iraqi leadership more incentive, not less, to get their house in order? Declaring that the bulk of U.S. troops will depart within 18 months may allow insurgents to crow that the U.S. is cutting and running, but after $1 trillion and 3,000 dead, we're in 11th-hour, face-saving, loss-cutting mode now. It's possible that 18 months isn't enough time for the Iraqis to meet the goals set out by Khalilzad today. The truth is that no one knows how long it will take for Iraq to make peace with itself. But it's time for the U.S. to make it clear that we don't intend to stay to find out.