PHILADELPHIA -- The debate in the Senate last week over when to exit Iraq was disgraceful. Americans deserve an honest airing of the most important foreign policy issue facing the country. But this congressional circus had little to do with policy and everything to do with election-year politics.
I'm surprised his nose didn't grow a foot when he claimed a recent Army intelligence report proved Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The report, released under Republican pressure in the midst of the debate, says that since 2003, about 500 munitions have been recovered in Iraq that contain "degraded" mustard or sarin gas.
Mind you, these munitions were picked up in ones and twos and date to Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s. Such weapons deteriorate over time. According to David Kay, the head of the U.S. team that hunted for WMD in 2003 and 2004, these gases by now would be "less toxic than most things that Americans have under their kitchen sink." Their "poor condition" was affirmed by intelligence officials in a media briefing.
But Mr. Santorum insisted this intelligence proved Mr. Hussein had WMD that could have reached terrorists. Such silly claims will only bolster the evidence that U.S. intelligence is being manipulated for political reasons.
Why would terrorists want old, degraded munitions? Much more tempting targets lie within potential reach, such as the unsafe Russian nuclear storage dumps. Is Mr. Santorum campaigning for more U.S. money to secure Russian nuclear waste?
But let's get back to serious business - the debate over a U.S. troop exit. I believe that Democrats who want to set a timetable now are wrong. But the Republican taunt that Democrats want to "cut and run" is purely a product of electioneering, not of security concerns.
The White House knows that there is a vigorous debate within the U.S. military over the very issue Democrats raised: whether keeping more troops in Iraq longer makes the situation worse or better. These are the military concerns that Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania hears.
I've heard both sides argued by top officers in Iraq and inside the Pentagon. As one senior military source put it, the big debate is whether drawing down would make the Iraqis stand up sooner. Some say yes - so long as the United States leaves a substantial force of military trainers and advisers along with air power.
"There are too many troops here now," a senior officer in Iraq told me. "It creates dependency and becomes a magnet for attack." This particular officer would like to see troops cut to 80,000 to 90,000 now and 20 percent to 40 percent more later this year.
Another senior officer argued just as hard for "hanging around longer to give a chance for Iraq's new national unity government to gel, if the goal is to keep Iraq together." I concur. If we left too soon, Iraq would sink into greater chaos, affecting the entire region. But I believe U.S. troop levels will decrease sharply by 2007, for several reasons.
Political pressure for a pullback will grow before the 2008 elections - from Republicans. Moreover, Iraqi officials from nearly all factions say they want U.S. troops drawn down within 18 months. Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, wrote in The Washington Post recently that he expected most of the U.S. troops "to return home by the end of 2007."
But neither Mr. Rubaie nor more senior Iraqi leaders want an explicit timeline. Instead, they favor a "road map" for troop reductions that depends on achieving goals for improving Iraqi security. They want dates, but dates that depend on meeting those targets.
So are Mr. Rubaie and a hefty segment of senior U.S. brass "quitters"? Or are they more honest than many Senate Republicans?
As for Democrats, they should stop obsessing over timelines. The Republicans and Iraqis will set those soon enough.
Instead, Democrats should focus on the issue of competence. They must convince voters they are more capable of salvaging the Iraq mess than the incompetents who created it. The competence test should be central to any argument over Iraq's future. Would that candidates also had to pass a Pinocchio test when debating Iraq.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.