Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, President Bush finally made some sense on Iraq this week. His forceful attack on the Democrats' deadline for withdrawing our combat troops hit the bull's-eye.
Bush had a fat, easy target. The House version of the military funding bill, which includes a September 2008 deadline, is loaded with domestic spending bribes needed to get members to support it. And immediately after passing their bills, the House and the Senate went on spring break without bothering to reconcile their differences. Until they do, lawmakers can't send the measure to Bush for his certain veto.
That amounts to a stalemate, with the Democrats overplaying their hand and playing into Bush's claims they are undermining our troops and setting us up for failure in Iraq. Bush, no doubt tired of being on defense over the war and the problems of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seized an opportunity to shift the blame. Conveniently ignoring his own poor performance as commander in chief, he warned that, unless Dems give the military the money it needs and let the troops finish their mission, Iraq would become a "cauldron of chaos" where Islamic extremists could "plot attacks on America."
Painting Democrats as soft on terror is familiar turf for Bush, and some of the old swagger was back. He sounded like Dirty Harry's "make my day" when he demanded Congress get back to work. "They need to come off their vacation, get a bill to my desk, and if it's got strings and mandates and withdrawals and pork, I'll veto it. And then we can get down to the business of getting this thing done."
For Democrats, there are hypocrisy and risk in the move to force a troop withdrawal. They derided the president's surge in January by saying that most military commanders opposed it. Yet, as Bush crowed Tuesday, not a single commander has voiced support for their withdrawal timetable. With the added talk of tax hikes under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Dems are on the verge of reinforcing their stereotypes of being anti-military and pro-taxes.
Bush also sought to portray them as hurting military families, warning that a funding delay could mean longer stays in Iraq for some troops and earlier deployment for others.
"Congress' most basic responsibility is to give our troops the equipment and training they need to fight our enemies and protect our nation. They're now failing in that responsibility, and if they do not change course in the coming weeks, the price of that failure will be paid by our troops and their loved ones," he said.
Those are serious charges, but Bush's gambit also is full of risks. His claim of progress in securing Baghdad could be undone in the instant it takes a car bomb to go off. And Democrats are right that voters are tired of the war, so they are scoring points even among some independents by standing up to Bush.
Politically and practically, however, there is little they can do to stop Bush's surge of 25,000 more troops. They are boxed in, for now, but maybe not for long. It all depends on what happens in Iraq.
Already, there is speculation that military commanders there, who will get the full surge contingent by early June, will have the remainder of the year to show real and sustained progress. If they fail, the battle over withdrawal will become an important marker on the road to our defeat.