- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Democrats lost a vote on the Iraq war in the Senate last week 58-40, a decent margin in light of growing public opposition to President Bush’s handling of that conflict.

The Senate vote was a significant milestone in the war’s history. It was the first vote on troop withdrawal. It also was apparently the first time Democrats offered an amendment for a vote on the war. In the end, both parties, in a 79-19 vote, accepted a Republican substitute that embraced the idea of an eventual “phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq,” without mentioning any dates certain.

The Democrats’ amendment to the defense authorization bill was clearly a test of Mr. Bush’s strength in the Republican-controlled chamber. In a nutshell, it would have pressured the administration, among other things, to set “estimated dates” for withdrawing U.S. forces as Iraqi security goals are met.

Most Democrats voted for it. Only four joined Republicans to kill it. After the legislative skirmish, both sides claimed victory.

The Republicans clearly demonstrated a majority opposed any move to tie the war to some arbitrary dates that would signal the terrorists that, if they wait us out, the time will come when they will be able to unleash a bloody offensive to topple a tenuous democracy still in its infancy.

Antiwar Democrats maintained they forced Republicans to debate the nature of the war, its expected length and costs and the need for an exit strategy sometime in the future.

But Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, decided, though they had the votes to kill the amendment, they needed something more: to signal the White House and all Americans that they, too, wanted more clarity about how the war was proceeding and language that showed the GOP was not insensitive to its expected duration.

The Democratic amendment flatly declared U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and that the Iraqis must be told a time will come, sooner rather than later, when they will be in charge of their own security. The Republican substitute changed that language to fit Mr. Bush’s admonition that we will not stay in Iraq a day longer than needed to finish the mission and that the Iraqis must be advised of this.

It was classic legislative sausage-making, with the GOP picking phrases from the Democratic amendment they could accept, but adding language agreeable to the White House.

Mr. Bush, in the midst of his Asia diplomacy trip, saw the Democrats’ defeat as “a positive step.” The Senate “rejected an amendment that would have taken our troops out of Iraq before the mission was complete,” he said.

While war critics took comfort that they had raised the issue in the Senate and put Republicans on the defensive, others were unhappy with the withdrawal message. “The bill that was originally introduced by the Democrats would run too high a risk of conceding defeat at some future time,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a Democratic national security adviser at the Brookings Institution. What he “would have done was to mandate a three-fourths troop reduction by 2007,” Mr. O’Hanlon told me. “But Democrats are not allowing us to have this debate because they want a more extreme option, which is a complete withdrawal. I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said.

Ivo Daalder, another top defense analyst at the liberal Brookings, said Republicans adopted significant parts of the Democrats’ amendment and by thereby sent signals to the White House they want clearer answers about “what are we doing there, how are we doing, and when are we done.”

Nevertheless, the withdraw-troops-by-a-certain-date Democrats have lost their first antiwar offensive. That is in keeping with polls showing a clear majority of Americans, despite growing doubts about the war, do not want to pull out before it is clear Iraqi security forces can deal with the terrorists there and continue Iraq’s democratization.

On Dec. 15, Iraqis will go to the polls again to elect a brand new government and legislature under their recently approved Constitution. That will be a historic turning point for the war-torn country and another major blow against the insurgents, who increasingly are becoming politically irrelevant.

The focus now is on that critical election and the parallel buildup of the Iraqi army, which will assume a larger share of responsibility for Iraq’s security. The growing consensus here is that as this happens, phased troop withdrawals sometime next year will become more likely.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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