01/05/2007 04:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Emerging Democratic Strategy to End the Iraq War?

Perhaps this is what I am hoping, rather than what is or will be, but I have detected signals of a subtle Democratic Party strategy to reduce US involvement in Iraq without directly de-funding it, and without directly telling Bush "no". People from Jack Murtha to James Webb, and Steny Hoyer to Carl Levin, seem to be responding similarly to questions about Bush's pending speech, deliberately avoiding confrontation but describing contingencies for agreement that Bush may proclaim he meets, but that hearings will show that he does not.

Chris Matthews keeps probing Democrats as to whether they are going to stand up to Bush, whether they will vote up-or-down on the surge, and he gets no direct answers. Perhaps, he is missing something, and their general comments about accountability hide a deeper, subtle strategy that will be played out over the next two months.

This is how it may work. Bush will announce his surge coupled with some muddled mission, and will present a request for $100B in funding (for the surge, and for continuing operations). With the needs of the military to re-arm, re-train, and slow the redeployment rates, the Defense Appropriations' committees may agree to the overall numbers, but direct the money to be spent first on mending the military. They may appropriate money for Iraq but make it contingent on a line-item basis on the Iraq government hitting specific milestones. They would be smart to include in the contingencies White House cooperation with oversight hearings, and make them prove to the Committee that a specific milestone has been met so that the money could be released.

Bush, of course, will demand "clean" bills, and accuse the Democrats of not funding the troops. With this strategy, however, where the funding for the military is in place, he will have difficulties sustaining that argument especially with an electorate that wants out, and milestones that anyone would consider critical to our being able to leave.

True, most of what the Democrats are saying on Iraq right now sounds mealy-mouthed at best. They speak of oversight in general terms, and of awaiting Bush's plan before commenting definitively. There is a chance that they are playing possum, letting Bush go through his machinations and pompous posturing, and then slowly sticking in the knife and twisting as one after the other of Bush's claims fail to materialize.

This is, in essence, a domestic sanctions strategy, establishing forcefields that pull Bush in particular directions without directly dictating it. If the Congress directs money to mending the military, and not to more troops in Iraq, then the surge may not last long. If Congress provides money for Iraq based upon milestones, and the milestones are not met, Bush is going to have to adjust because the money will not be released. The question is whether Bush will be able to circumvent the prescriptions on how the appropriated money will be spent, and insist he has the final call on whether a contingency has been met. It might provoke a Constitutional challenge, but Congress certainly can both dictate how money is to be spent, and determine criteria that releases funds, and all Bush has is the designation as Commander-in-Chief.

This might not be a bad strategy. It will put flesh on the bones of "accountability", making it concrete and thus more easily understood by the American people. It will either move the Iraqis to meet the milestones, so that our presence is not needed; or it will not, so that our efforts will be "defunded" by the Iraqis themselves and not directly by the US Congress.

The other benefit of this strategy is that it provides "space" for key Republicans (see, e.g., John Warner's [Not So] Secret Warnings) to join the Democrats in crafting the restrictions and contingencies without having to oppose Bush directly. Key Republican defections from Bush are the most potent weapon in bringing the war to an end, and providing them some space is a good tactic.

This strategy could bring the US involvement in Iraq to as rapid a conclusion as any.

If, of course, this is really what the Democrats will do. Within a few weeks, we should know.