First off, and this hardly even needs to be said, Republican charges of Democrats "playing politics" with the Iraq war deserve a wing all their own in the Museum of Chutzpah. This president and his party have been playing politics with the war on terror literally since before the smoke cleared in lower Manhattan, using post-9/11 "security" arguments to justify everything from endless tax-cuts to No Child Left Behind, up to and including the Iraq invasion. I do take some small amount of satisfaction in their whining, but it's rather overshadowed by disgust at their constant and shameless exploitation of national trauma.
The president insists that we mustn't cut and run, mustn't leave Iraq a mess. Echoing Jerry McGuire, and with about as much gravitas, Bush insists that I'm not a guy who runs. I stick, once again confusing narrow stubbornness with resolve. It's of course important that the U.S. do everything it can to see that legitimacy obtains in the political institutions we are helping to create in Iraq, but the question is whether announcing a schedule for withdrawal would help or hinder that.
Last week I attended a talk at UW by George Packer and Mark Danner, two New Yorker writers who have done extensive work in Iraq. Their accounts of the situation on the ground varied from dim to pitch black. The one thing that they both repeatedly stressed was that at this point it's all but impossible to do any real reporting outside of the Green Zone bunker area. It's difficult enough to get an Iraqi man or woman to speak candidly to an obviously Western reporter, knowing that the insurgents or their informants are watching them, but it's simply out of the question when that reporter is surrounded by a phalanx of U.S. troops, as all Westerners must be when they travel outside the Green Zone. This in itself reveals as nonsense the wingnut claim that the media "just don't report the good news" from Iraq.
Both Danner and Packer mentioned that they had heard from what they considered credible sources that the Sunni insurgents are waiting for the American withdrawal to launch a massive offensive against the provisional government and all those who have been cooperating with it, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike. This would seem to support Bush's claim that announcing a withdrawal would add fuel to the insurgency. Just how much fuel is unknown, but when you consider the fuel that was de-Ba'athification, that was disbanding the Iraqi army, that was Abu Ghraib, and that is the occupation itself, it's almost comical that Bush chooses to be most concerned about the emboldening effect of withdrawal.
I disagree somewhat with Sam Rosenfeld here, I don't think the U.S. has "already been dragged into a civil war against the Sunni on behalf of the Kurds and Shiites." That's not to say that there isn't a civil war going on in Iraq, only that it doesn't divide up as neatly as the Sunni vs. the Shia and the Kurds. There are Sunni leaders who have put their lives, and their families' lives, at risk in order to try and work out a political solution, and there are Shia who are working to frustrate the political process because they believe, rightly, that they will emerge victorious from an all-out civil war in which their methods were not constrained by the U.S. presence. In that regard, the U.S. occupation is holding back a genuine sectarian war.
A major issue, which the administration has consistently avoided discussing, is that of permanent U.S. military bases. These bases have a special significance for Iraqis, who remember the post-WWI British occupation in which the Brits claimed they had come to liberate the Iraqi people, then built some military bases which they took a very long time to leave. I think Bush could do a lot by stating outright that the U.S. has no intention of a permanent military presence in Iraq, but, of course, this assumes that he has no intention of a permanent military presence in Iraq, which I think is unfortunately not the case, as abandoning bases in Iraq would be abandoning a major component of the neoconservative plan, which was to create a friendly Iraq from which we could shake our big stick at the Middle East. The neocon delusion ("Cakewalk! We'll be greeted with flowers! More troops? Nonsense!") remains a major obstacle to creating a workable plan for any significant troop withdrawal. Indeed many if not most of the disastrous decisions in this war can be traced back to its fantastic presuppositions.
This provides a nice opportunity for Democrats to offer their own plan for phased withdrawal, with a stress on the "phased" part. Right now, I think the good effects of such a plan would still outweigh the bad, but time is not on our side.