Date certain

Posted: Aug 26, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At the National Cathedral, just days after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to grieving sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers -- whose family members had been murdered by terrorists. "This conflict," the president said, "was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing."

 According to Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the hour of our choosing is midnight, Dec. 31, 2006. So mark your calendars, rent the hall and order the catering. The boys will be on their way home in time for the New Year's Day college bowl games. So says the junior senator from Wisconsin.

 Last week, as the Iraqis were debating the first democratic constitution ever drafted in an Islamic country, Feingold, in one of his famed "Listening Sessions" in Wisconsin, said that U.S. military counter-terrorism operations in Iraq were only "feeding the insurgency," and he called on President Bush to withdraw U.S. military personnel from the fight by Dec. 31, 2006. A firm "end date," the senator claimed, would "help us to undermine the recruiting efforts and unity of the insurgents." He went on to say that, "I think not talking about endgames is playing into our enemies' hand." In short, Feingold and his friends want us out of Iraq by a "date certain."

 Three days later, Feingold -- who admits he has never supported the war in Iraq -- tried to fudge what the words "end date" mean. "No, it's not a deadline," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Just like the other things I just mentioned, it's a target." This is the kind of doublespeak for which Yasser Arafat was famous: say one thing to your home constituency -- and something else to a broader audience.

 Unfortunately, Mr. Feingold is not alone in deciding that now is a good time to forecast an American withdrawal. Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient, did support the war, and even advocated sending in more troops. But now he is calling for the administration to develop -- and publish -- an exit strategy.  "We should start figuring out how we get out of there," Mr. Hagel said. "But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East." Sen. Hagel, who is occasionally mentioned as a GOP presidential candidate in 2008, says our soldiers are getting bogged down in Iraq the way they did in Southeast Asia a generation ago.

 Hagel's parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are inaccurate. Having spent a significant amount of time in both wars, about the only comparisons I have seen are that the bullets are still real and the media is still hostile. Otherwise, there are extraordinary differences in terrain, the support received from outside powers, the type of enemy -- and a huge dissimilarity in casualties. During 1968 -- the year I arrived in Vietnam -- and the year we committed ourselves to getting out of that country, we averaged 39 casualties per day -- far in excess of what we are experiencing in the war on terror.

 Whether they call it a "deadline" or a "timeline" or a "blueprint for withdrawal," what Messrs. Feingold and Hagel are advocating is a distinction without a difference. Both of them are saying, "Cut and run." Feingold would simply tell everyone the exact day and time of our departure. But leaving at any time before it is the right time would create the power vacuum about which Hagel is concerned. We won't know what the right time is until it arrives.

 As we near the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, it's important to remember that events make dates important, not the other way around. And in the new democratic Iraq, positive events have already created dates for its citizens -- and Americans -- to remember:

 March 19, 2003: The day the liberation of Iraq began, as the U.S.-led Coalition entered Iraq.

 April 9, 2003: The despot's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, toppled by a joyfully liberated people.

 Dec. 13, 2003: A bedraggled, wild-eyed Saddam, dragged from a rat hole in the dirt and taken prisoner to stand trial.

 Jan. 30, 2004: Millions of Iraqi men and women proudly displaying ink-stained fingers to show the world that they had braved threats and intimidation to vote.

 In the weeks ahead, the Iraqis will submit the constitution that they have drafted to a referendum of the Iraqi people. In December, they will hold elections for a 275-seat National Assembly, and form a multi-ethnic, largely secular government that will guarantee the same rights and privileges to all of the country's ethnic and religious groups.

 None of these events -- past or future -- are the consequence of artificial timelines imposed by a hostile mainstream media or skittish lawmakers. This week, the president reiterated that we will stay the course until the Iraqi people are able to govern and defend themselves against terrorists who would deny them, and us, the most fundamental of liberties.

 To do otherwise would surrender the people of Iraq -- and the region -- to a fate even worse than that to which we left the Vietnamese thirty years ago. And if we do that, there will be another "date certain" -- the point in time, years from now, when historians will look back and say, "that's when the great American dream of individual liberty began to die."