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A different way forward

A congressional vote against Bush's Iraq strategy could actually give him more leverage with Baghdad officials.

January 22, 2007

AS SOON AS this week, the Senate could adopt a nonbinding resolution that reads in part: "It is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq." The House is likely to follow suit.

Whether the final wording of the resolution refers to President Bush's planned movement of 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq as an "escalation" or something else (the language may be softened to attract more Republican votes), it would represent a dissent from the surge, the centerpiece of Bush's revised Iraq policy. The resolution would have no effect on the conduct of the war -- and any attempt by Congress to meddle in military strategy should be rejected -- but it would be seen as a blow to the president.

Maybe it shouldn't be. Congress actually could be doing Bush a favor by disagreeing with him. Ideally, passage of the resolution would create a diplomatic version of the "good cop/bad cop" routine, with Congress playing the role of the bad cop and Bush using its stubbornness as leverage in dealing with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Such a strategy is possible because there is not as much daylight between Bush and his congressional critics as the resolution indicates. In addition to opposing the surge, the resolution -- drafted by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- calls for the United States to "transfer, under an appropriately expedited timeline, responsibility for internal security and halting sectarian violence in Iraq to the government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces."

Bush's plan disdains timetables, but it also involves pressuring Maliki to come down hard on his fellow Shiites in the Al Mahdi militia headed by Muqtada Sadr. That pressure seems to be having an effect. Two commanders of that militia complained last week that Maliki, under U.S. pressure, was no longer protecting them. On Friday, U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of Sadr's lieutenants.

There is no guarantee that Maliki won't backslide or that the surge will stabilize Baghdad and Al Anbar province as Bush hopes. In going on record against the surge, however, Congress won't -- and probably can't -- stop it. But the nonbinding resolution could still serve Bush's other objective if the Iraqis take it not literally but seriously as reaffirmation of Bush's pledge that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended.

In June, a Senate that was only marginally more Republican than the current body soundly rejected a resolution calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces to begin by the end of 2006, with no timetable for complete withdrawal. That the current resolution probably will prevail is a reflection not just of the passage of time and the changeover of Congress but also of growing and bipartisan fatigue with the war.

If he is smart, Bush will use that impatience to his advantage in pursuing both aspects of his "new way forward" -- a surge in U.S. troops and a message to the Iraqis that the surge is their last, best and temporary hope of U.S. assistance in keeping their country together.

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