Bush’s big decision

President Bush has put off until after the new year to tell the country what his “new way forward” in Iraq will be. He’ll have to excuse us for not waiting with bated breath.

So far all we’ve heard are hints that he might call for a “surge” in the number of troops in Iraq, up to 30,000. He and his military advisers seem to think coalition forces could pacify Baghdad that way. Last summer, we remember, they sent an additional 15,000 troops into the city, and since then the violence has gotten worse, not better.

It’s pathetic that The Decider is only now looking for answers, when there really are none to be had. The opportunity for decisive action dissolved away some time ago. Even a temporary “surge” may not be feasible, given the exhausted state of the U.S. military. The only realistic goal, as the Iraq Study Group pointed out, is to minimize the harmful effects of failure.

There is no military solution to the mess in Iraq. Only the Iraqis can create stability in their country. The president has long resisted setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, but it’s become clear that setting a withdrawal deadline is the only hope he has of pushing the feuding Iraqi factions to forge an enduring agreement on federalism, neutralizing the militias and sharing oil revenues.

The biggest successes the U.S. has had in Iraq so far have come when it has set firm deadlines—to transfer authority, to hold elections, to form a government. We need to be firm again, this time setting a deadline for withdrawal. It should allow plenty of time for the Iraqi politicians to negotiate an agreement but also make it clear that there is a limit to the number of American lives that will be sacrificed while they squabble among themselves.

The incompetence and arrogance that brought the U.S. to this point don’t release us from the obligations created as a result. We have a moral duty to stand by the peaceful Iraqi citizens who have created a fledgling democracy at our urging and save them from the mass violence that would occur if we suddenly withdrew. But we must withdraw, slowly but surely, and the Iraqi government must be forced to stand on its own.