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Realists or Wimpocrats?

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After 100 days of posturing and chest pounding, Congressional Democrats have thrown in the towel on efforts to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. An almost-no-strings-attached $120 billion bill to fund U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30 likely will be passed before Congress takes off for a long Memorial Day holiday.

As sweeteners for stridently anti-war Democrats, the final Iraq supplemental funding bill is likely to include a hike in the federal minimum wage (from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over 26 months) and $17 billion in non-war-related military and domestic spending, i.e., pork. The bill also will set "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to reach, though the benchmarks are mere guidelines that President George W. Bush can ignore and no doubt will.

Passage of the bill will mark a major victory for the president, who vetoed an earlier bill that tied spending to hard-and-fast timetables for U.S. troop withdrawal. It also points out a difficult political reality for the Democrats:

Although the party won control of both houses of Congress in November, it did so with narrow majorities that include conservative Democrats in nominally Republican states and districts. Politics is the art of compromise, and Democratic leaders couldn't find a compromise that all their members could support. On the left left, hard-core anti-war Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, backed by the so-called "netroots" party activists, are deeply disappointed in the final bill. "It looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action," Feingold said. Kucinich attacked the bundling of the minimum wage bill with the Iraq vote: "First it was blood for oil. Now a minimum wage for maximum blood."

To their right, moderate Democratic senators such as Jim Webb of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who won narrow victories over incumbent Republicans last November, refused to go along with Feingold and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in setting hard deadlines for ending the war. In the House, 15 Democratic freshmen split with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a test vote on the hard-deadline question last week. Most of them won narrow victories last November, and all come from states swept by Bush in 2004.

In short, as much as Democratic activists may want the war over now, and as much as polls show Americans soured on the president's handling of the war, moderate Democrats held the balance of power. None of them wanted to face the inevitable, albeit ridiculous, charge that they "abandoned the troops."

So now what?

Reid and Pelosi say they'll bring up the question of hard deadlines again this summer, but for the next year, Bush can manage - or more likely, mismanage - the war however he wants. However, under increasing pressure from House Republicans who want to see progress in the war before the 2008 campaign begins, Bush wisely has begun to rethink last December's recommendations from the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group.

Led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the study group had called for greater diplomatic efforts with Iraq's neighbors, as well as a gradual redeployment of U.S. troops into secure compounds in Iraq, from which they could avoid being drawn into a civil war while focusing on missions against al-Qaida insurgents.

Bush and his generals, looking ahead to whatever follows the current troop surge in Baghdad, may well choose that route. U.S. troops would remain in Iraq, though in smaller numbers and without the daily exposure to sectarian violence. Iraq's government could count on at least some U.S. support as it tries to find solutions to its proble. And the U.S. military could begin a planned drawdown of its troops and avoid the chaos of a precipitous withdrawal.

This won't end U.S. involvement immediately, but it will signal the beginning of the end. By the odd and tragic calculus that governs this ghastly war, that much is progress. To whatever extent the last 100 days of debate helped move Bush in that direction, the debate was worthwhile.

Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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