Running on empty


Having refused for three years to try to come up with any actual constructive ideas about the war in Iraq, congressional leaders last week chose to put the enduring conflict smack in the center of the coming election campaign. Jeering at "cut-and-run" Democrats, the Republicans placed their confidence in a formula that would keep American soldiers in the deepening quagmire -- indefinitely.

There it is: their strategy for victory.

The maneuvering in the Capitol on Thursday and Friday was shameless and pandering, but at least it puts Iraq on the table for the voters to think about. The last elections, in 2004, came when it seemed to some that things could still be turned around, given a little patience. Two years later, with no significant progress, Americans' patience has about run out.

In Maryland, the big news of the week in the Senate race was candidate Benjamin L. Cardin's call for the withdrawal of 66,000 troops from Iraq by year's end, starting with National Guard units, and for the remaining 66,000 to be out a year later. The volunteer army, he said, is in danger. He has been among the more cautious candidates on the issue, in a crowded field, but it was significant that none of his opponents, including Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, attacked him from a more hawkish position. Maryland, of course, is not a drum-and-bugle sort of state, but if the Bush administration and its allies want to make Iraq a campaign issue nationally, that strikes us as a good idea.

But the country, after all this time, deserves a real debate, not the lugubrious emoting that went on in Congress last week. The Republicans there were feeling their oats, because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bogeyman of Baghdad, had been whacked with a half-ton of explosives, because President Bush had spent five hours in Baghdad and come away confident that the Iraqi government was going to come up with a plan, and because that government itself has finally been formed just six short months after elections.

The House and Senate, as expected, rejected any sort of timetable for withdrawal. A plausible argument could be made that such an approach is not the best way to extract U.S. troops from Iraq, but plausible arguments were not what congressional Republicans were about. If there's a better way to get out of Iraq and leave the country in some sort of stable shape, they should be talking to Americans about it.

Outside Washington, it's painfully obvious that all the usual indicators in Iraq -- number of insurgent attacks, hours of electricity, incidents of sectarian violence -- are headed in the wrong direction. If the Republicans think that doing nothing different is a good strategy, let's talk about that, too.

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