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Toothless but useful

A congressional resolution could push President Bush and Iraq to make the most of the troop surge.

February 10, 2007

TWO WEEKS AGO, the Senate seemed poised to approve a nonbinding resolution criticizing President Bush's planned deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. Such a resolution was viewed -- even by some of its supporters -- as less a policy prescription than a warning to Bush to live up to his promise that, "surge" or no surge, the U.S. mission in Iraq isn't "open-ended."

But thanks to parliamentary missteps by the new majority, some shrewd maneuvering by the Republican minority and Democratic skittishness about being accused of not supporting the troops, an anti-surge resolution is on hold in the Senate and instead gathering momentum in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, supporters of the administration are suggesting that Congress should mind its own business.

We disagree. Congress should go on record as a way of pressing Bush and the Iraqi government to make the most of what may be the last politically realistic chance of pacifying that country and keeping it together.

An anti-surge resolution is one way for Congress to make Bush choose between two competing interpretations of his Jan. 10 speech unveiling a "new way forward" in Iraq: (1) That "if the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people"; and (2) that "failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States." Like many in Congress who support an anti-surge resolution, we believe the first message is the only tenable one. That the Bush administration itself might be leaning in that direction was suggested this week by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates' testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gates expressed hope that the surge would succeed in pacifying Baghdad and ramping up the ability of Iraqi forces to maintain order on their own. But he also acknowledged that the Pentagon was studying alternatives -- notably a redeployment of U.S. combat troops to Iraqi Kurdistan or Kuwait -- in case the new strategy fails. Gates said the surge wasn't the "last chance" to salvage Iraq, but the backup plan he described was to move U.S. troops "out of harm's way."

Perhaps most revealingly, Gates told Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) that "if the plan to quiet Baghdad is successful and the Iraqis step up, I would hope we would be able to begin drawing down our troops later this year." The implication is that the success -- or failure -- of the surge will be pronounced sooner rather than later. Gates' comments irritated Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who told the defense secretary that "if you're asking somebody in eight months to solve a 1,400-year-old religious dispute, bring people together who have suffered a dictatorship for 30 years, reconstruct an economy that was raped by a dictator -- that's a pretty tall order."

Too tall, we would reply, if it requires the open-ended commitment that even Bush now seems to disavow. The president, Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus should be given time to make a success of their new approach, but that time should be measured in months, not years. If it takes a resolution from Congress to make that point to the president, so be it.

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