At a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon, representatives from both sides of the aisle tried to get Defense Secretary Robert Gates to answer the same question members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put repeatedly to Condoleezza Rice this morning: What happens if the Iraqi government doesn't live up to the latest round of promises it has made?
Gates was a little more forthcoming than Rice -- she refused to discuss "Plan B" at all -- but that doesn't mean that he ever really answered the question.
If the administration believes that the Iraqis aren't doing what they've promised, Gates said that the United States would "go back at them hard in terms of the commitments they made."
What does "go back at them hard" mean? Gates said he meant that the United States would be "reminding them of their commitments" -- a "diplomatic and political response" to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.
What if that doesn't work? "We would have to look at the strategy," Gates said. And what does that mean? "We'd have to decide at the time," he said. As Rice did this morning, Gates said that it would be wrong to talk about the failure of the new strategy before it has a chance to succeed.
What Gates and Rice won't acknowledge is that the idea of having benchmarks -- or real ones, anyway -- is necessarily premised on the notion that there will be consequences if the benchmarks aren't met. The consequences aren't something you think up down the line once the plan has failed; they're an integral part of the plan in the first place.
A lot of members Of Congress might go along with Bush's new plan if it had some hard-and-fast on-and-off switches -- if it involved tellling the Iraqis that they've got to do this, that and the other thing by some specified date in the near future, or else the American troops will be leaving them to fend for themselves. The president would probably like the public to think that's what his plan does. But that's not the plan Rice and Gates have been selling today. If the benchmarks in Bush's plan have dates associated with them, Rice and Gates aren't saying what they are. And if there's any predetermined consequence for failing to meet them, we certainly haven't heard anyone say what they might be.
Bush said last night that his commitment to Iraq is not open-ended. What he seems to have meant is that he'll go with his new strategy until it doesn't work, and then he'll start thinking about what might come next. That's not a plan. It's a ploy to put off what seems like the inevitable.