- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

While anything can happen between now and Election Day 2008, the most likely prospect is that the Republican Party will take another major beating absent a withdrawal timetable to reduce U.S. combat troops in Iraq.

If that happens, the new Democratic president will most certainly pull out all remaining troops. He or she will have been elected with a mandate to do so and will. Thus, President Bush will end up with precisely the very outcome he is fighting to avoid: a cut-and-run strategy.

Given this likely scenario, Mr. Bush’s choices are reduced to the following: either he announces a plan to eventually reduce U.S. combat forces by half and help elect a new Republican president commanding 70,000 troops in Iraq to continue fighting al Qaeda and training the Iraqi army, or he “stays the course” and we end up with zero troops under Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or any Democrat who wins.

Calling for a troop surge and simultaneous withdrawal timetable are not incongruous. In fact, it’s politically the smart thing to do. If Mr. Bush can convince the American people an increase in combat troops is a short-term necessity to establish the conditions in Iraq that will allow for a gradual withdrawal, this will greatly undermine congressional Democratic attempts to thwart his surge strategy and use as an issue to bludgeon Republicans in 2008.

Furthermore, this withdrawal need not be precipitous. Mr. Bush could lay out a plan that starting in March or June of 2008, for example, U.S. combat forces will be gradually reduced to 70,000 by the year’s end. The exact number and timing of withdrawals can occur as conditions on the ground Iraq warrant. What’s important is that American voters clearly perceive our troop presence is no longer open-ended and that there is a plan to draw down our involvement.

Announcing a withdrawal timeline will also provide congressional Republicans political cover and allow them to dump their current attempt to frame the debate in Congress as a referendum over supporting versus undermining the troops. Most Americans want to support the troops by withdrawing them and will not likely to buy into this juxtaposition. Past Republican attempts to portray antiwar Democrats as unpatriotic, “useful idiots” of the terrorists in 2006 was a colossal failure. It didn’t work then and certainly will not work in ‘08.

In fact, for Republicans, the polling data continue to get worse since they suffered a major spanking by voters in the ‘06 elections. The most recent polls show 53 percent of the public now favor setting a “deadline” for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq — up 6 percent since June 2006. In addition, another 67 percent oppose a troop surge, while an equal number “disapprove” of how Mr. Bush is handling the war in Iraq.

Voters are suffering from war-fatigue and it will only get worse as the butcher’s bill in Iraq continues to grow between now and November ‘08. Right or wrong, most Americans perceive that the fight in Iraq is not primarily against al Qaeda but has, instead, degenerated into a Sunni-Shia civil war. Given that this administration’s numerous mistakes and miscalculations in Iraq have led to this sectarian fratricide, Republicans and conservatives are digging themselves a huge hole by tying their fortunes to a surge strategy that does not include a withdrawal timetable.

Furthermore, even if the current troop surge achieves its desired objectives, the pressure will increase, not decrease, to set a timeline for withdrawal. American voters will interpret a relatively more peaceful and stable Iraq as a reason for the United States to stand down its involvement. As conditions in Iraq improve, the rationale and justification for U.S. combat forces to remain evaporates.

The only hope for congressional Republicans in 2008, and party presidential hopefuls, is to convince Mr. Bush to complement his troop surge with a withdrawal timeline. Such a timetable will give voters, especially Independents who deserted the party in 2006, hope that there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel.

If Mr. Bush wants to stake his legacy on the outcome in Iraq and the Republican Party’s fortunes in ‘08, he has a much better chance of doing so with a timeline that will help a Republican succeed him and keep 70,000 troops in Iraq.

Without a timetable, the Republican Party is dead and, whatever happens next in Iraq, Mr. Bush will be blamed for starting the war and for mismanaging the occupation and whatever debacle that may follow. He may be remembered as the 21st century’s Herbert Hoover.

Gary L. Jarmin is a Republican strategist and president of a government affairs consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

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