"Not at this time"

The Senate moves forward on an Iraq withdrawal plan.

Published March 28, 2007 1:33PM (EDT)

As the Senate voted yesterday to keep a withdrawal timetable in its Iraq funding bill, Republican Sen. John Warner warned that the move would be a "bugle of retreat" signaling that "coalition forces have decided to take the first step backward." "We cannot send that message," Warner said. "Not at this time."

Uh, senator? You're a little late.

"Coalition forces" have been stepping backward for some time now. According to GlobalSecurity.org, Nicaragua, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, the Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, Tonga, Portugal, the Netherlands, Hungary, Singapore, Norway, Ukraine, Japan, Italy and Slovakia have all withdrawn their troops from Iraq. And just as George W. Bush was announcing plans to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, Tony Blair was starting the process of bringing a substantial percentage of British troops home as well.

But that's just picking nits, at least compared to the larger problem with Warner's articulation -- the "not at this time" part.

If you assume that Americans troops will leave Iraq someday -- and, one way or another, everyone says that they will -- then all we're talking about here is a two-part question of timing: A) What can be accomplished in the meantime, and B) how many people will die in the process? The math is pretty simple: Unless you think the answer to A is "a lot," then the number you can accept for B has got to be close to zero.

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel did a version of that math for himself Tuesday -- "There will not be a military solution to Iraq," he said -- and surprised a lot of people by casting his vote with the Democrats. Joe Lieberman surprised no one by casting his vote with the Republicans. (As Greg Sargent notes, Lieberman said that this is the "first time in a long time" that there's reason for optimism in Iraq -- undercutting, it would seem, all those times that he has said there was reason for optimism before.) Dick Cheney waited around to break a tie, but it never came: With Republican Sen. Gordon Smith crossing over with Hagel, the Democrats prevailed on a 50-48 vote even after Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor crossed over to join GOP war supporters.

Pryor isn't opposed to setting a withdrawal date; he just wants to keep it a secret so that the insurgents, terrorists and other ne'er-do-wells can't pencil it into their Day Runners. "At least you'd have a plan," he says.

Well, at least you would. The president's plan is no plan, or at least no plan with a clear path to any kind of certain end. If now is not the time to come up with something better, then when is? Do we wait for 100 more U.S. troops to die? For 1,000? Or for however long it takes before Republicans like John Warner feel that their own political fortunes are too much at risk to keep writing the blank check the president keeps demanding?

By Tim Grieve

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

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