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Steve Benen

Steve Benen

Posted: January 11, 2007 03:31 PM

Stay the Open-Ended Course


Over the last year or so, one of the more effective Democratic criticisms of the handling of the war is GOP support for an "open-ended" conflict. It was self-evidently true. Unfortunately, it still is.

If war supporters reject timelines, reject benchmarks, reject withdrawal, reject redeployment, and insist that U.S. forces have to stay in Iraq until we achieve some kind of hard-to-define "victory," then they, practically by definition, support an open-ended conflict. In other words, given their vision of the war, we're in Iraq for the indefinite future.

I'm beginning to think, however, that the notion of an open-ended war polled a little too well for Democrats, because the GOP is now rejecting the notion forcefully. Consider this line from the president's speech last night: "I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended."

It's a phrase that's come to dominate news coverage over the last 18 hours. On MSNBC last night, Tim Russert, who was part of a small group of journalists who met with Bush in the White House before the president's address, told viewers, "[N]o more are we going to hear 'we're going to stay until victory' or 'we're going to achieve this mission, we're not going to leave until we've achieved that result'. This is not an open-ended commitment."

With this in mind, it's a shame Bush's comments were wholly, obviously, untrue.

Putting the politics aside, what exactly is an "open-ended commitment"? It's a commitment without a determined end; one that could last indefinitely.

In the context of the war, the vast majority of Americans, including most of Congress, aren't at all comfortable with the notion of the United States being in Iraq indefinitely. Even conservatives want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The idea that U.S. troops could still be fighting in the streets of Baghdad in 2012, costing the nation thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is so offensive as to be absurd.

So, Bush wants everyone to know that "America's commitment is not open-ended." Except it's absolutely open-ended.

You heard the speech; when does this conflict end? When Iraq can sustain, govern, and defend itself? When the mission is successful? When Maliki gets Iraq under control? No one knows when that will, or even could, happen. And yet, as far as Bush, McCain, and Lieberman are concerned, we can't leave until it does. By any reasonable definition of the phrase, that is, of course, an open-ended commitment. To suggest otherwise is to turn the meaning of the phrase on its head.

If this debate is going to have any intellectual seriousness to it, war supporters have to admit the obvious and subject it to public scrutiny. To tell the nation, as Bush did last night, that under the administration's approach, "America's commitment is not open-ended," is just dishonest. It suggests some focus group responded well to the phrase, so it made the speech.

That doesn't make it true.