With the release of an interim report showing the Iraqi government continuing to underperform, it is clear that the United States has to stop hoping for miracles and start planning for the inevitable. There is no question that the loss of lives there should lead to troop withdrawal; the question is how to withdraw without sinking the region into even deeper chaos and an even greater loss of American and innocent Iraqi lives.
American troops need to begin exiting Iraq as soon as possible, probably meaning next year -- sending many to nearby staging areas as a safeguard against that deeper chaos and leaving behind only enough to pursue a radically altered mission. Americans should continue to be involved in training and in anti-terrorism activities, but they must be pulled from the midst of a civil war, which their presence, in fact, exacerbates.
While the specific planning for such a change in mission remains to be done, the outlines have already been drawn, and are contained in last year's report by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. President Bush made a show of accepting that report and then all but shunned its sensible recommendations in favor of the administration's fantasy visions of a victory.
The need for change is obvious from any perspective -- militarily, strategically, morally and even politically. Republicans, concerned about both the course of the war and the prospects of their re-elections, are pressuring the administration in ever greater numbers to change strategy now. Last Wednesday, two Republican senators announced they would vote with Democrats on a bill demanding that combat stop next spring, and the bill passed Thursday 223 to 201.
Meanwhile, a group of GOP senators was meeting with the president's top national security aide urging him to act now, rather than waiting for a formal report on the troop surge due in September. Those events followed by only a week Sen. Richard Lugar's declaration that the surge already had failed.
The problem is that Bush remains resistant to any significant change, despite clear evidence that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is incapable, and perhaps uninterested, in the crucial task of resolving the differences between the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. That leaves it up to Congress.
Democrats and Republicans need to continue pressuring the administration, to the point of restricting funding for the war -- not by cutting it off, which would simply harm the troops, but by directing where it may be spent. That's the only way Bush will respond, assuming he doesn't announce some new kind of executive privilege that allows him to do what he wants in Iraq whatever anyone else says.
This country remains under threat of terrorism, and a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could deliver parts of the country, including its oil revenues, to al-Qaida. Bush is accountable for that because of the way he took the country into war and his administration's incompetence in running it.
With their control of Congress, though, Democrats now are accountable for the way Americans leave Iraq. It needs to be done carefully, but with a clear understanding that U.S. troops can no longer be expected to act as targets in a civil war they cannot influence. But if the executive branch refuses to take this action, the legislative branch must.