President Bush rarely misses a chance to champion "the commitment and sacrifice that the people are making" in Iraq. Maimed by Saddam, they hobble on crutches to vote. Suicide bombers blow up police recruits and young men continue to sign up. When Iraqi politicians have bickered and disagreed, Bush has forgiven their uncertain progress. Even America's founders were sluggish, he has reminded us.
The narrative of the noble Iraqi has been necessary to remind Americans of the moral cause for which soldiers continue to die. But that ideal may be fading, if today's Senate votes mean anything. This afternoon, the Senate voted to 79-19 to demand progress reports from the White House and pressure Iraqis to speed up their process of taking over the security of their own country. The Senate had originally considered a measure that would have set a schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but that failed after Republican lawmakers argued a timetable amounted to cutting and running. Sen. John Warner, who authored the Senate resolution, told the New York Times today that the underlying message to Iraqis was, "[W]e really mean business, Iraqis, get on with it." The time for paying tribute to Iraqis' George Washington-like qualities is over. The subtext of the Senate action: Iraqis must work harder and take control of their country, so that American troops can leave.
The White House has seen this coming for months. As Americans become less sure that fighting in Iraq makes them safer, they're less willing to sacrifice U.S. soldiers for the Iraqi people. Freedom and democracy are nice, but let the Iraqis figure them out on their own time. "It's hard to get [Americans] to care about what's happening in [Iraqis'] lives," said a senior administration official recently. That remark is typical of a complaint I've heard from inside the administration for months.
Perhaps Americans should embrace their dwindling affection for the Iraqi people. In fact, saving face as the United States draws down troops requires it. We must not say that U.S. soldiers are leaving because the situation has become untenable or because the politics of the 2006 elections demand pictures of troops coming home for good. Rather we must insist that U.S. soldiers will leave as an act of tough love. By setting the timeline, the United States will shock Iraqis into embracing their new freedom in earnest.
Republican senators are impatient with what's happening in Iraq. With today's provision, they were careful not to blame the White House or the American fighting men and women. They were less nervous about blaming the Iraqis.