Outside editorial: Battle over war funding rightly takes center stage

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer:

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Just months after taking control of Congress on a surge of antiwar feeling, Democrats have forced a showdown with President Bush over the Iraq War. For both sides the showdown has elements of show - a puffing up over prerogatives, a bit of ritual intransigence before a bow to inevitable compromise. One way or another, money for the troops will continue to flow, for now.

Nevertheless, this week's conflict in Washington causes Americans to consider how the war in Iraq will turn out. It was time we talked about this.

Thursday's Senate vote for a war spending bill - with an Oct. 1 deadline to begin troop withdrawals - followed a similar debate in the House. Votes closely followed party lines; Democrats for deadlines, Republicans opposed. The president pledges a veto. That could come Tuesday, the four-year anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" flight-deck triumph.

Mindful of the timing, the White House called the Democratic stance "Mission Defeated." Republicans label troop-withdrawal deadlines "surrender." Democrats say they're a signal to the Iraqi government of the need for rapid progress, and that most Americans believe the war, with 3,300 service personnel killed over four years, must start winding down.

Indeed it must. The public's patience for troop losses is not unlimited, nor is the public purse - Iraq is costing us about $2 billion a week. The military has been drained by too-frequent deployments and a long, grinding occupation.

So deadlines or not, troops will eventually leave; the new Iraq will stand or fall, either as the bastion of democracy and peace Bush envisions, or as something more chaotic and sinister. Either way, credit goes to the U.S. military, which expeditiously defeated Saddam Hussein's forces in 2003 and has been stationed on difficult terrain ever since. This week's drama in Washington is about the story of how the war winds down, not whether it will.

Democrats want credit for forcing the administration to retreat. They see the war as a misguided (at the least) and overreaching affair waged ineptly and for too long. The president and his allies persevere in seeking victory - which they define as an insurgency defeated, a blow dealt to Islamic terror, a safer Middle East created. They're banking on a "surge" of forces to quiet the Baghdad area.

But time is short, and not just because Democrats say troops should start coming home by Oct. 1 and be all out by a year from now. Gen. David Petraeus, the president's chosen surge commander, told Congress on Thursday that he'll make a formal evaluation of how it's working in September. Noting the complexities of Iraq's intertwined conflicts, he warns, "This effort may get harder before it gets easier."

If forecasts for a hot and deadly summer prove out, Petraeus' September review could be the only one he gets to make. Unless he can show heartening progress - meaning fewer U.S. troops are needed - public opinion may pull the plug. With an election year looming, even Republican officeholders will want an exit strategy.

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