From the Baltimore Sun:
WASHINGTON – President Bush and Iraq’s prime minister have agreed to set a “general time horizon” for bringing more U.S. troops home from the war, a dramatic shift from the administration’s ironclad unwillingness to talk about any kind of deadline or timetable.
The announcement yesterday put Bush in the position of offering to talk with Iraqi leaders about a politically charged issue that he has adamantly refused to discuss with the Democratic-led Congress at home. It could also complicate the presidential campaign arguments of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, who have staked out starkly opposing stands on the unpopular war.
Iraq has leverage because the White House is struggling to salvage negotiations for a long-term agreement covering U.S. military operations there. The White House said its goal is to conclude that deal by the end of this month.
The leaders agreed that improvements in security should allow for negotiations “to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals, such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq,” the White House said.
Bush has vetoed legislation approved by Congress setting deadlines for American troop cutbacks.
Yesterday’s White House statement was intentionally vague and did not specify what kind of timelines were envisioned. That allows Iraqi officials, who are facing elections in the fall, to argue they are neither beholden to Washington nor willing to tolerate a permanent U.S. military presence. For Bush, it points the way toward a legal framework for keeping American troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31.
As for the campaign to elect a new commander in chief, McCain firmly opposes any withdrawal timetable while Obama pledges to pull out combat troops within 16 months. By talking about a “time horizon,” Bush appeared at odds with McCain and could make his own GOP administration a tougher target for Obama’s anti-war barbs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bush wasn’t going far enough. “After rejecting 18 months of attempts by the Democratic majority in Congress to adopt redeployment timetables, the president now proposes a vague general time horizon that falls far short of a commitment to ending our involvement in Iraq,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, who has led House hearings on the planned agreement with Iraq, said the “time horizon” cited by the White House was “very vague and nebulous.” He also said the agreement taking shape seemed “far less grandiose than what was initially articulated.”
From the Financial Times:
Gordon Johndroe, White House spokesman, said the agreement was “the result of the president’s strategy bearing return on success”. But Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said the “effort to distinguish between a ‘time horizon’ and a ‘time table’ to accomplish that goal falls flat”.
While violence levels have declined sharply, the move reflected the reality that Mr Maliki, who is facing increasing pressure to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that the US occupation will some day end, insisted on the language.
Officials and experts suggested that including language in the security agreement, which the administration hopes to complete soon, would have little impact on Iraq policy: US troop levels are still expected to be about 140,000 by the time Mr Bush leaves office in January.
“He has found a soft enough way to do it that will not really constrain American policy,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution. “Any kind of a time horizon is not going to be permanent . . . My guess is it will be harmless and yet it will partially respond to the Iraqi domestic political need to show that this is not going to last forever.”
The administration is implacably opposed to a fixed timetable of the kind proposed by Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate. By agreeing to a vague “time horizon”, the White House argues the deal is consistent with its strategy of gradually handing control to the Iraqis as security conditions improve.