Last Tuesday, the US Senate voted for an arbitrary date for withdrawal from Iraq. Whatever the situation on the ground, US troops would be mandated to leave Iraq by March 31, 2008 (as far as you can mandate anything in non-binding language). Unlike the House, the Senate language does not demand that the President step down as Commander-in-Chief and cede that position to a Committee-of-the-Whole in Congress. But there is still the possibility that reconciliation with the House bill will result in that language.

And, of course, the President will almost certainly deliver on his threat to veto the bill if that happens, so it would be back to the Congress again for another round of moral posturing and pork-barrel payola. The long and short of it is that the bill as written is as much about sound bites and funding constituent programs than serious foreign policy.

But, nonetheless, last week the majority in Congress took a very dangerous step. In most cases, I suspect, out of real convictions regarding the War in Iraq and what we should do about it. Charity requires us to assume the best of intentions on the part of people—and many of them have expressed sentiments against the war for a year or more. Voting one’s conscience is what a representative is supposed to do in a Republic. Then the voters decide whether your conscience is worth re-election. (Or that’s the theory, isolated from multi-million dollar campaigns and good old fashioned human weakness.)

So I don’t want to impugn the motives of most of the backers of this withdrawal language. But I do want to point out which destination the road paved with good intentions leads to.

The real tragedy is that those voting for this sort of fixed withdrawal date are voting for something guaranteed to produce the worst possible results. Whatever they want, they won’t get it. Instead, if they get their way, they’ll get blood and death on an unimaginable scale. Consider for a moment some common slogans behind this bill:

We need to put pressure on the Iraqis to solve their problems—this is “a signal to the Iraqi leaders that we cannot save them from themselves” (Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich).
Except that it isn’t. It’s a signal that we’ll abandon them whether or not they solve their problems. It asks the Iraqi leadership to display heroic virtue and risk their lives trying to solve problems that might well take more than a year to solve. No matter how close they get in a year’s time, if Iraq can’t stand on its own April 1, 2008 (September 2008 in the House version), these people get to die horribly. Need another year? Another few months? Another few weeks? Too bad, times up. Perhaps the Iraqi leadership will rise to the challenge and succeed in meeting our arbitrary deadline. But should you gamble hundreds of thousands of lives on it being done in a year—with absolutely no flexibility in the timetable?

Iraq cannot be stabilized through military force—“there will not be a military solution to Iraq” (Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb).
Absolutely true, as far as it goes. Sunni/Shia violence, eradicating Al Qaeda in Iraq, bringing the remaining Baathists into the political process, ending Iranian and Syrian funding of terrorists and sectarian fighters—none of these has a purely military solution. But look at each and ask yourself: “Does a fixed timetable make solving this problem more likely?” What incentive is there for extremists to negotiate and neighbors to respect borders if the US is certain to be gone in one short year? Sure, they might lie low for that one year, not wanting Congress to wise up and realize its error. But negotiate in good faith? When waiting ensures you get everything you want after the Americans are gone? Remember, you’re an extremist convinced of the rightness of your cause and that the only reason you’re not in charge is because of those damned Americans. Now they’ve shown their coward’s colors. You’ll wait them out and inherit the land.

The US presence is now an impediment to a real solution—we need to “force the Iraqis to fight their own war” (Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa).
Adds a grave misunderstanding of human nature on top of all the problems of the previous topic. Leaving aside whether the Iraqis can fight and win against terrorists backed by Syria and insurgents backed by Iran (bolstered with Iranian troops), should that really be our goal in Iraq? Do we not care what kind of regime triumphs in Iraq after this war fought by Iraqis? Do we not realize the likely tactics to be used in such a war? If you think the US has been careless of civilian casualties, just wait—you ain’t seen nothing yet. What kind of irresponsible hubris allows a Congressman to simply wash his hands of the nation his party voted to plunge into chaos? (And, yes, the Democrats did exactly that when they voted to authorize the invasion. They may be angry or ashamed that they did so, but they don’t get to rewrite history.)

War is bad, peace is good—“if you want peace, stop funding this war” (Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio).
To be fair, most of this crowd probably voted against the current bills, since they didn’t mandate immediate unconditional withdrawal. But one can’t really let this pass by without remarking: peace for whom? Certainly not for the poor Iraqis. Whatever the possibility for final victory, the recent troop surge has improved the lives of many. US troops aren’t saints, but they’re a damn sight better than sectarian zealots or Al Qaeda murderers. To advocate obtaining peace for ourselves by abandoning the Iraqis to their fate seems so cruel and bigoted that one must presume, in charity, that those calling for it either haven’t thought about the outcome or are certain its unavoidable. Although you’d think that in the latter case, simple human concern would require you to offer asylum to the progressives, homosexuals, feminists, and just plain folks who will be on the chopping block once we leave.

We can’t win, victory is impossible—we should minimize US casualties by leaving now.
Ironically, this is perhaps the most reasonable (if also most viciously pragmatic) possible reason. Ironically, because I did not see any prominent quotes touting it. Either most of those against the war don’t believe this, or don’t want to say it, for some reason. In any event, if you believe this, you still shouldn’t be for a fixed timetable for three reasons: troop morale, enemy tactics, and moral considerations. No matter the facts, the troops are going to feel that a fixed deadline which both leaves them in harms way for a year and guarantees that their buddies deaths past, present, and future are pointless isn’t going to sit well. At some point before the fixed deadline, we’ll have to begin preparations for withdrawal. At some point, those preparations will be impossible to stop. And at that point, our enemy will know that we can’t simply change our policy, and they will take their revenge: against us, against those who helped us, and against anyone they just don’t like. Why allow them a year to plan their slaughter, months to line up the resources for it, and weeks to carry it out?

And that last consideration, the moral one? It’s the simplest. If the war is really lost, and our presence makes no bit of difference in the long run, then every day we stay gets people killed for no reason. Since we can’t do anything about Iraqi casualties (in this view they’ll happen regardless), we need to minimize our own. That means we withdraw now, as soon as feasible, without any prior warning. Not slowly, but as quickly as we staged in we stage back out.

Sure, that will mean an absolute slaughter of all those who mistakenly put their trust in us. But again, on this view, that’s going to happen in any event.

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In every single case, a fixed timetable for withdrawal that gives no flexibility to the President, the military, or the Iraqis is the worst possible “solution” for the problems in Iraq. If those who voted for it last week got their way, they would be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that will come as a result. And they’d be responsible for the hundreds of American deaths that will come during that final year. Whatever you think about Iraq, you can’t think about Iraq and support this. This road—though paved with the best of intentions—really does lead to Hell.