WASHINGTON -- There was a vote on the Iraq war in the Senate last week that the Democrats lost 58-40, a decent margin in light of growing public opposition to the way President Bush has handled that conflict.
What happened in the Senate was a significant milestone in the history of the war. It was the first vote on the subject of troop withdrawal. It also was apparently the first time Democrats had offered an amendment for a vote on the war. And, in the end, both parties, by a vote of 79-19, accepted a GOP substitute that embraced the idea an eventual "phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq," minus any mention of dates certain.
The Democrats' amendment to the defense authorization bill was clearly an attempt to test Bush's strength in the Republican-controlled chamber. In a nutshell, it would have pressured the administration, among other things, to set forth a plan "with estimated dates" for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as Iraqi security goals were met.
Most Democrats voted for it. Only four joined the Republicans to kill it. When the legislative skirmish ended, both sides were claiming victory.
The Republicans had clearly demonstrated that a majority opposed any move to tie the war to some arbitrary dates that would send a signal to the terrorists that if they wait us out, the time will come when they will be able to unleash a bloody offensive to topple a tenuous democracy still in its infancy.
Antiwar Democrats maintained they had forced Republicans to debate the nature of the war, its expected length and costs and the need for some planned exit strategy sometime in the future.
But Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., decided that even though they had the votes to kill the amendment, they needed something more: to send a signal to the White House and to all Americans that they, too, wanted more clarity about how the war was proceeding and language that showed the GOP was not insensitive to the issue of its expected duration.
The Democratic amendment flatly declared that U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq indefinitely and that the Iraqis must be told there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when they will be in charge of their own security. The Republican substitute changed that language to fit Bush's admonition that we will not stay in Iraq one day longer than is required to finish the mission and that the Iraqis must be advised of this.
It was a classic example of legislative sausage-making, with the GOP picking phrases from the Democratic amendment that they could accept, but adding language agreeable to the White House.
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.