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The Political End Game on Iraq

It's come to this then: Democrats anted up yesterday and declared an end to U.S. participation in the Iraq war no later than September 2008. Republicans in turn vowed resistance and the President threatened veto. With the two sides forming ranks, the coming showdown in Congress over the next month should be quite an event, as the future of the Iraq war hangs in the balance.

Or not. For a good summary of what happened yesterday on Capitol Hill check out The Politico's John Bresnahan's posts on the Pelosi plan and the Reid plan.

But the fact of the matter is that the Democrats presented their withdrawal plans with the expectation that neither will ever reach enactment. Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi appreciate better than anyone the insurmountable task facing them of getting either one of their plans through Congress and past a presidential veto. It won't happen.

The question arises then as to why the Democrats would willingly enter a political standoff that will ultimately end in the surge progressing. It has to do with positioning and perception: Pelosi presents a withdrawal plan that is predicated on certain conditions and goals going unmet by the Iraqi government. Reid, meanwhile, forgoes conditions, but sets a "target date" for withdrawal past the point where there could be any question that Congress had given the president's plan time to succeed. Come November 2008, the expectation is that the public will have a very clear idea of which party allowed the surge to continue and which tried to avoid catastrophe (without of course causing it).

Is this much of a gamble? From the Democrats' calculations, no. Were all things equal, and the chances of success in Iraq 50-50, the Democrats wouldn't be as aggressive in their opposition. But all things aren't equal and the Democrats are probably moving forward on the assumption that the chance of failure in Iraq is 70-30, if not 80-20, which are very good odds.

But military odds and political odds are not one and the same, the latter being dependent on an independent, highly unpredictable variable known as the American public. Should we lose in Iraq, the odds are Republicans will take the blame. Unless, of course, the public believes that Democratic actions helped lead to that defeat. Hence, Pelosi's and Reid's differing plans that place complete withdrawal well into 2008 - in other words, well past the time they think the public could blame them for encouraging defeat.

But if the surge should succeed, then Democrats have a problem. Success in Iraq switches the dynamics of the gamble from avoiding blame to getting credit. And although Democrats have probably gone out on the ledge as far as they think is wise, they are still out there and vulnerable if Iraq takes a turn for the better.

So the coming showdown the media will be trumpeting for the next few weeks won't be much more than a lot of fiery rhetoric from both sides. This is now a waiting game and it all depends on what happens in Iraq.