Donald Lambro

Bush, in the midst of his Asia diplomacy trip, saw the Democrats' defeat as "a positive step." The Senate "rejected an amendment that would have taken our troops out of Iraq before the mission was complete," he said.

While war critics took comfort in the fact that they had raised the issue in the Senate and had thrown Republicans on the defensive, others were not happy with the withdrawal message it sent. "The bill that was originally introduced by the Democrats would run too high a risk of conceding defeat at some future time," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Democratic national security adviser at the Brookings Institution.

What he "would have done was to mandate a three-fourths troop reduction by 2007," O'Hanlon told me.

"But Democrats are not allowing us to have this debate because they want a more extreme option, which is a complete withdrawal. I don't think that's realistic," he said.

Ivo Daalder, another top defense analyst at the liberal think tank, said Republicans adopted significant parts of the Democrats' amendment and by doing so, sent signals to the White House that it wants clearer answers to the questions of "what are we doing there, how are we doing, and when are we done."

Nevertheless, the withdraw-troops-by-a-certain-date Democrats have lost their first antiwar offensive. That is in keeping with polls showing a clear majority of Americans, despite growing doubts about the war, do not want to pull out before it is clear that Iraqi security forces can deal with the terrorists in their midst and keep their country's democratic movement on track. On Dec. 15, Iraqis will go to the polls again to elect a brand new government and legislature under their recently-approved Constitution. That will not only be a historic turning point for this war-torn country, it will deal another major blow to the insurgents who are becoming increasingly irrelevant to Iraq's political revolution.

The focus now is on that critical election and the parallel buildup of the Iraqi army, which will assume a larger share of their country's security. The growing consensus here is that as this happens, the prospect of phased troop withdrawals sometime next year will become more likely.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.