The Democrats who vote this week to give the president the additional billions he wants for his war without a "timeline of withdrawal" are acting on a rational calculation. Nothing, for them, outweighs the importance of 2008, when they look to wrest control of the White House from a demoralized Republican party. The only way to assure that result is to pin the war--all of it--on the president and his followers. You do it by letting them lose the war in their own way.
Let us concede the realism of the view. The pragmatists mean to watch as the president destroys himself and his party and as much of the U.S. Army and American prestige in the world as still remains for him to destroy. That could be quite a lot, but--so the calculation runs--when it is over it will really be over. The fault will be easy to recognize, heavy to lift, impossible to deny.
By comparison, the argument for declaring a schedule of withdrawal has rested on a vague blend of reasons. The opposition says the 2006 election was a mandate, and so it was--but the people never told the Democrats how to get out. Again it is said the risk to our soldiers has become exorbitant--and yet if the cause were righteous, would Americans not want to accept the risk? Finally, some opponents have treated the war as an accidental intrusion on our politics. "The Iraqi government by its quarrels and delays, and the Iraqi people with their bloodlettings, have disappointed us terribly. They have proved themselves at last unworthy of our generosity." This excuse is congenial to all who want to pretend we had no part in bringing anarchy to Iraq. It is the easy thing to say; and people are saying it.
The argument that carries most force for ending the war now is a moral argument. It is known to the Democratic opposition, but they have mainly left it unspoken. It says that we have no justifiable cause for killing and dying in Iraq; that we can't inflict this suffering any longer on our soldiers, or on the Iraqi people; that we have become a source and a stimulus of violence in that country, more than we can hope to be its remedy; that the only Iraqis who steadily tell us otherwise are America's dependents and camp followers--the unfortunate minority who stand to lose more if we leave than if we stay. Only when this moral argument becomes a public fact will the opposition have found an answer to the calculation of the Democratic party realists and the wish by the president to be out of office before the blame descends.
Disgust with the war is general. Informed opposition has a distance to go. It must turn on something about us, not something about them. It must mention the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the massacre at Haditha, the house-to-house devastation of Falluja--the city we destroyed in order to save it. A country responsible for such things may have meant well, but it can't expect others to grant its honorable intentions. There comes a time when past actions speak louder than present words. If the war has become intolerable and not just politically inexpedient--intolerable because of the things we have allowed ourselves to do to Iraq, and the things the world has seen us do--the Democratic opposition must say so. Their majority may then grow larger; it will certainly grow stronger. And it will have a reply waiting for General Petraeus when he says, as surely he will in September, that the situation is dangerous but getting better; that he needs a little more time, a few more walls, a few thousand more troops.