11/16/2006 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A "Date Uncertain" Isn't a Plan For Iraq - And We Owe The Iraqis That Much

The Republicans haven't had a plan for Iraq since they invaded - and it shows. Polls now indicate that most Americans don't believe the Democrats have a plan, either. They're right. Like it or not, our country owes the Iraqis that much.

To be fair, where the Republicans have only rhetoric ("stay the course," "win"), the Democrats actually have at least two plans. The approach in the Kerry/Feingold amendment provides a "date certain" for tactical U.S. withdrawal to neighboring countries, with the ability to reintroduce troops quickly to protect our strategic interests.

I supported Kerry/Feingold, but I had (and still have) grave misgivings. While many of us opposed this war from the beginning, we as a country have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people. Yes, they were living under a dictatorship - but they never asked for the flawed and sectarian vision of "democracy" we've imposed on them.

The suffering and loss of life they've experienced as a result of our national blindness and arrogance is enormous. On one hand, I don't believe it's ethical to walk away and allow their misery to intensify because voters are now unhappy with the results of their choices. On the other hand, it appears our presence is making things worse, not better. That's why I've (uneasily) stuck with the Kerry/Feingold approach.

The second strategy, favored by Senators like Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton, is what I call the "date uncertain" approach. Its supporters have attacked the Kerry/Feingold approach on the grounds of naivete, a charge that's far more appropriately tied to the "date uncertain" gambit. How can you begin the withdrawal process without a clear idea when you are going to complete it, and without clear standards to help you determine the rate of withdrawal?

Uncertainty is not a strategy. The "date uncertain" approach seems to reflect timidity and equivocation - the character flaws of its architects - codified into military strategy. It appears to carry a high risk of failure.

The President wants to holds steady, while Sen. McCain wants to increase troop levels. Surprisingly, Gen. Zinni agrees with McCain that a short-term increase in troop levels may be needed. We ignore the tactical wisdom of Gen. Zinni at our own peril, but increasing troop levels without a clearly-articulated plan (and under current Presidential leadership) looks like a Vietnam-scale mistake.

How should the Democrats respond? Normally, the party that holds the executive should be responsible for crafting an effective war plan, but they can't or won't. As I've written earlier, if you can't define "winning" and won't accept a negotiated solution, losing is the only remaining option. The Baker group is unlikely to come up with a proposal that's acceptable to all parties, which is why Bush has already accounced that he's convening his own competing "study group."

Here's how we'll know we have a workable plan for resolving our involvement in Iraq:

* It provides for a multinational presence, with strong regional participation
* It includes meaningful reparations and reconstruction for Iraq
* It includes concrete targets, deadlines, and contingency plans

The three guiding principles behind a reasonable Iraq strategy should be a) compassion and concern for the Iraqi people, b) an end to the war and occupation as quickly as possible, and c) maximizing true stability in the region.

There are four plans on the table now: "Stay the course" (if you can call that a "plan"), raise troop levels, use the "date certain" withdrawal approach, or begin the "date uncertain" process. Of the four, I would rank "date certain" highest, followed by "date uncertain." "Stay the course" is absurd, and raising troop levels without a plan (and under current leadership) seems like madness.

But the question that comes to mind is: Can't someone - perhaps a Democrat - come up with a better plan?

The United States owes a collective amends to the people of Iraq for the harm we've done to their country. It's also in our self-interest to ensure that post-occupation Iraq doesn't destabilize the entire region. If Democrats can cohere around a meaningful strategy that meets these goals, they can take the lead in the national debate and help resolve the tragedy in Iraq.

A Night Light