Outflanked on Iraq?

There may well be a troop drawdown before November, but the Democrats won't get any credit for it.

By Tim Grieve

Published June 26, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

When Democrats in the Senate pushed last week for a resolution calling on the Bush administration to begin to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the year, Republicans branded them as cutting-and-running, troop-denigrating America haters and then voted down their measure on a mostly party-line vote.

It must have been a radical idea, this notion of drawing down troop levels this year. Only it wasn't. As we noted during the course of the debate, the plan put forth by Carl Levin and company wasn't so very different -- and was maybe even less dramatic -- from what the president's generals have sometimes proposed. Last August, for example, Newsweek reported that the Pentagon had drawn up a plan to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq to the 40,000-60,000 range by the end of this year. That's not going to happen -- there are about 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now, not the 80,000 the Pentagon plan apparently envisioned -- but war planners are still hoping for a significant drawdown this year.

As the New York Times reported Sunday, Gen. George Casey has drafted a plan that would pull two combat brigades, or about 7,000 soldiers, out of Iraq this year and make much more substantial reductions in 2007. That sure sounds a lot like Levin's proposal -- to "begin the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq this year" -- only it's set up for the Bush administration, not Senate Democrats, to take credit for bringing troops home. Oh, and the trigger date isn't the end of 2006, but apparently something a little sooner: Under the Casey plan, two combat brigades would come home in September, which is to say, just in time to claim progress before the November elections.

Were the Democrats outflanked? Yes, but mostly by themselves. As the Washington Post reports this morning, Levin said over the weekend that the Bush administration plans for a preelection troop withdrawal are one of the "worst-kept secrets in town." "It shouldn't be a political decision, but it is going to be with this administration," Levin said in an appearance on Fox News. "It's as clear as your face, which is mighty clear, that before this election, this November, there's going to be troop reductions in Iraq, and the president will then claim some kind of progress or victory."

Well, right. And it was incredibly hypocritical for the Bush administration to send out the dogs on the Democrats' plan when its own generals were busy concocting something so similar.

But couldn't Levin and his Democratic colleagues have anticipated this last week, and couldn't they have done something to stop it? Yes, and yes. If the Democrats in the Senate really wanted to set themselves apart from the Bush administration on Iraq, they could have voted for the troop withdrawal plan proposed by John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer -- the one that would have required, albeit in a nonbinding resolution, the withdrawal of all U.S. troops not involved in training Iraqis by the middle of 2007. They didn't do that. Still too timid to pursue the sort of timetable that a majority of Americans say they'd support, the Democratic leadership opted for a half-a-loaf approach instead. The result? They get their patriotism questioned by the likes of Karl Rove, and then the White House gets to claim credit for a troop withdrawal anyway.

It seems to us that there's a lesson in there somewhere, and it's long past time for some scared-of-their-shadows Democrats to learn it.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Barbara Boxer D-calif. Carl Levin D-mich. Iraq Iraq War John F. Kerry