05/29/2007 05:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iraq, Democrats and the Art of the Possible

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. Yet, the current torrent of rage over last week's compromise on Iraq funding ironically blames the Democrats for seizing the possible at the expense of the impossible in a classic example of making the perfect the enemy of the good. In their fury, anti-war critics mistakenly equate a tactical retreat with total capitulation and fail to recognize the substantial progress Democrats have made in their five months in power.

The starting point for any assessment of this compromise should be June 22, 2006 when the Senate rejected a resolution on troop withdrawal in what was the only vote on Iraq policy in either house that year. In fact, except for attacking Democrats for wanting to "cut and run," the Republican Congress was essentially silent on Iraq last year. In contrast, there have been at least the 14 votes on Iraq (including the passage and subsequent veto of the Iraq Accountability Act setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq) during the first five months of the Democratic Congress. With each vote, Congressional Republicans are forced to choose between defending the President and their own political viability; which may explain why they have abandoned their "stay the course" rhetoric and are now marching to the White House warning the President that time is running out.

As Sun Tzu explains in the Art of War, to achieve victory a general must choose his battles carefully. "One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant." While they may have public opinion on their side in seeking a timetable, the reality is that, since they are 68 votes shy of a veto-proof majority in the House and 15 votes in the Senate, the Democrats simply lack the ability to impose a timetable for withdrawal at this time.

Although the compromise's lack of a timetable may be a tactical retreat, it is far from a blank check for the President as critics contend since, as Senate Majority Leader Reid noted, it begins "the process of holding this President and the Iraqis accountable." Specifically, in exchange for an additional four months of funding for Iraq operations the compromise requires the President to report on 18 separate benchmarks for the Iraqi government and redeploy U.S. troops should the Iraqi government conclude our presence is no longer desired, prohibits torture of detainees, and contains substantial increases in funding for Katrina relief and homeland security plus the first increase in the minimum wage in ten years.

By requiring the Bush administration to report on progress on key benchmarks, Democrats have framed the debate for the next round of Iraq funding in September. Coincidentally, this is about the time when both General Petraeus indicated that the surge's effectiveness could be assessed and leading Republicans have set as a deadline for improvement in Iraq before seeking a "Plan B." Absent some dramatic reversal of conditions in Iraq, Democrats will be in a much stronger position to impose conditions for withdrawal at that time since Republican defections will be certain to increase as the debate shifts to "Plan B".

What supporters of the compromise and their critics each fail to recognize is the extent to which each side is right. Anti-war critics must remember that by denouncing Democrats as "cowards" or even "evil," they are falling victim to the same myopia which bought into Ralph Nader's claim in 2000 that there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush that helped "elect" Bush in the first place. In this case, I seriously doubt that the 7.3 million working Americans who will now have an additional $4,368 per year to spend on necessities view their benefactors as either "cowards" or "evil."

In addition, if anti-war critics are to be relevant in this debate they must deal in the realm of the possible and recognize what Edmund Burke noted over two centuries ago - "[a]ll government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter." While some anti-war critics have responded to the compromise by embracing Rep. Kucinich as a moral giant amongst Democratic dwarves, the fact is that even if every Democrat followed Kucinich's lead they would still lack the votes to impose a timetable for withdrawal. Anti-war critics must recognize that it is patience and compromise, not ideological purity, which ultimately will win the additional votes needed to extricate our troops from this disaster.

At the same time, Democrats must recognize the extent to which they are still judged for their pusillanimous record over the past six years, as a search of leading newspapers yields 94 articles over the past three years in which "Democrats" and "backbone" were used in the same sentence. With approximately two-thirds of Americans supporting linking Iraq funding to meeting certain benchmarks, anti-war critics are justified in expecting bold action from the Democrats -- particularly against a President with such dismal approval ratings. While courage and leadership alone will not make the impossible suddenly possible, the fact remains that the impossible can never be achieved without it.