A Timetable for Mr. Bush

Editorial

New York Times

November 17, 2005

No matter how the White House chooses to spin it, the United States Senate cast a vote of no confidence this week on the war in Iraq. And about time.

The actual content of the resolution, passed on a vote of 79 to 19, was meaningless. The Senate asked the administration to provide regular reports on progress in Iraq, and took the position that next year should be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty." It was a desperate - but toothless - cry of election-bound lawmakers to be let off the hook for a disastrous military quagmire.

Republican leaders, who supported the proposal, argued that the vote was a repudiation of a Democratic motion to set possible withdrawal deadlines for American troops. But the proposal would never have gone to the floor if members of President Bush's party had not felt the need to go on the record, somehow, as expressing their own impatience with the situation.

The ultimate Iraqi nightmare, which continually seems to be drawing closer, is a violent fracturing of the country in which the Kurdish north and Arab Shiite southeast break away, leaving the west, dominated by Arab Sunnis, an impoverished no man's land and a breeding ground for international terrorism. While this page was completely wrong in our presumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, we - and virtually everyone outside the Bush administration - warned about this danger from the beginning. Only loyalists who had bought the fantasy about dancing Iraqis throwing flowers before American tanks dismissed it as unlikely.

The consequences of such a breakup would be endless and awful: civil war, the persecution of minority populations in the new states, an alliance between the Shiites and Iran, and a complete breakdown of American moral and military influence in the Middle East.

No one wants that to happen, but Americans must ask themselves every day whether the troops who are risking their lives in Iraq are doing anything more than postponing the inevitable.

The one frail hope for a better outcome lies with the ongoing struggle to create a democratic central government in Iraq. We are encouraged by the high participation in elections, including the enormous increase in the number of Sunni voters in the last balloting, and by the declared willingness of leading Iraqi officials and sectional politicians to make political concessions to keep the country patched together. It is very possible that most of the voters are simply casting ballots on behalf of supremacy for their own religious or ethnic factions, and that the officials are only going through the motions, hoping to keep the United States minimally satisfied while they move toward their own self-serving goals. But at this moment, both the people and their leaders are clearing at least the lowest possible bar for measuring their progress.

A precipitous withdrawal at this point would be counterproductive. And while a timetable is certainly an option, the people who need deadlines are the Iraqis. Their government must be put on notice that the United States expects Iraq to show speedy, measurable progress in taking control of its own security, and that it must demonstrate that it is not just stalling for time when it comes to guaranteeing democracy and human rights.

The current constitution is unsatisfactory. It shortchanges the Sunni minority and fails to provide Iraqi women the guarantee that they will not wind up worse off under the new government than they were under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leaders have promised to change it after next month's elections. Washington needs to carefully scrutinize how quickly and how fully they honor that promise.

The Shiite-dominated government will be getting an early test of its commitment to building a just and inclusive society in how it responds to this week's horrifying allegations that policemen who are members of a powerful Shiite militia have been abducting Sunni Arab men and torturing them in a secret prison in the heart of Baghdad.

President Bush has lost the confidence of the American people, and his own party, when it comes to handling Iraq. If he wants to win it back, he must come up with a very clear road map for what he expects, both politically and militarily, from the Iraqi government. If the Iraqis fail to meet those goals, he must demonstrate that the price of equivocation is American withdrawal.

If the president fails, the American public has a timetable of its own. Elections for the House and the Senate are less than a year away.