- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

At the National Cathedral, just days after September 11, 2001, President Bush spoke to grieving sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers — whose family members were murdered by terrorists. “This conflict,” the president said, “was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”

According to Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, the hour of our choosing is midnight, Dec. 31, 2006. So mark your calendars, rent the hall, and order the catering. The boys will be on their way home in time for the New Year’s Day college bowl games. So says the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Last week, as the Iraqis debated the first democratic constitution ever drafted in an Islamic country, Mr. Feingold, in one of his famed “Listening Sessions” in Wisconsin, said U.S. military counterterrorism operations in Iraq were only “feeding the insurgency,” and he called on Mr. Bush to withdraw U.S. military personnel from the fight by Dec. 31, 2006.

A firm “end date,” the senator claimed, would “help us to undermine the recruiting efforts and unity of the insurgents.” He went on to say, “I think not talking about endgames is playing into our enemies’ hand.” In short, Mr. Feingold and his friends want us out of Iraq by a “date certain.”

Three days later, Mr. Feingold — who admits he never supported the war in Iraq — tried to fudge the meaning of “end date.” “No, it’s not a deadline,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Just like the other things I just mentioned, it’s a target.” This is the kind of doublespeak for which Yasser Arafat was famous: Say one thing to your home constituency — and something else to a broader audience.

Unfortunately, Mr. Feingold is not alone in deciding this is a good time to forecast an American withdrawal. Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient, did support the war, and even advocated more troops. But now he calls for the administration to develop — and publish — an exit strategy. “We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Mr. Hagel said. “But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East.”

Mr. Hagel, occasionally mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008, says our soldiers are getting bogged down in Iraq as they did in Southeast Asia a generation ago.

Mr. Hagel’s parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are inaccurate. Having spent significant time in both wars, about the only comparisons I have seen are the bullets are still real and the media still hostile. Otherwise, there are extraordinary differences in terrain, the support from outside powers, the type of enemy — and a huge dissimilarity in casualties. During 1968 — the year I arrived in Vietnam — and the year we committed ourselves to getting out of that country, we averaged 39 casualties per day — far in excess of what we are experiencing in the war on terror.

Whether they call it a “deadline” or a “timeline” or a “blueprint for withdrawal,” what Messrs. Feingold and Hagel advocate is a distinction without a difference. Both say, “Cut and run.” Mr. Feingold would simply tell everyone the exact day and time. But leaving at any time before the right time would create the power vacuum about which Mr. Hagel is concerned. We won’t know the right time until it arrives.

As we near the fourth anniversary of September 11, 2001, it’s important to remember that events make dates important, not the other way around. And in the new democratic Iraq, positive events have already created dates for its citizens — and Americans — to remember:

• March 19, 2003: The day the liberation of Iraq began, as the U.S.-led Coalition entered Iraq.

• April 9, 2003: The despot’s statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, toppled by a joyfully liberated people.

• Dec. 13, 2003: A bedraggled, wild-eyed Saddam, dragged from a rathole in the dirt and taken prisoner to stand trial.

• Jan. 30, 2004: Millions of Iraqi men and women proudly displaying ink-stained fingers to show the world they had braved threats and intimidation to vote.

In the weeks ahead, Iraqis will submit the constitution they have drafted to a referendum. In December, they will hold elections for a 275-seat National Assembly, and form a multi-ethnic, largely secular government that will guarantee the same rights and privileges to all Iraqi ethnic and religious groups.

None of these events, past or future, resulted from artificial timelines imposed by a hostile mainstream media or skittish lawmakers. This week, the president reiterated we will stay the course until the Iraqi people can govern and defend themselves against terrorists who would deny them, and us, the most fundamental of liberties.

To do otherwise would surrender the people of Iraq — and the region to a fate even worse than that to which we left the Vietnamese 30 years ago. And if we do that, there will be another “date certain” — the time, years from now, when historians will look back and say, “That’s when the great American dream of individual liberty began to die.”

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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