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Beyond the Bush veto

CONGRESS HAS sent its Iraq funding bill to land at the White House today, exactly four years after President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier flying a "mission accomplished" banner, and hours after the end of a month that saw more than 100 Americans and 1,550 Iraqis killed in the fighting there.

Democrats did themselves and the nation no favor in timing the bill to extract the most embarrassment from Bush, since it made them vulnerable to Bush's charge that their bill, requiring that the United States begin drawing down troop levels by October, was little more than political posturing since he had vowed to veto it. Senate majority leader Harry Reid also stumbled by saying the war had been lost. The war was won within a few weeks; it is the occupation that has been lost.

Still, Bush has stoked this debate with politics from the first. And, as for timing, there are very few days that offer a platform of positive news from Iraq. Just yesterday, the British reported the largest monthly casualties in four years, and the State Department reported terrorist attacks up 25 percent worldwide.

Bush last week blasted Congress for trying to micromanage the war, saying members should listen to the generals on the ground. But if Bush had listened to his own generals in 2003, he would have learned that a far larger force would be needed to pacify Iraq once Saddam Hussein was removed. And now, the new book from former CIA director George Tenet asserts that, if Bush had listened to his intelligence professionals in 2003, he wouldn't have rushed to war so precipitously.

Much more important than the political by-play, however, is the real policy debate playing out in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month in Iraq that progress by the government there would determine how long US troops would stay, implying Washington would not continue to provide security for a regime that fails to move toward resolution of Iraq's internal conflicts. But that cannot mean incremental progress by the government in Baghdad will trigger an indefinite stay by US troops.

The timetable set by Congress is realistic. If Bush can demonstrate progress within the next five months, but needs a limited additional commitment, he will surely get it at that time. But if the last-gasp "surge" has produced no significant progress, it will be time to go.

Little debated is what is needed most: Diplomatic efforts to secure agreement from Iraq's neighbors that they will not allow ethnic cleansing to rage uncontrolled in Iraq, and they will not allow the west of the country to become a staging area for Al Qaeda -- both in their own self-interests.

Bush would advance this goal by emphasizing that the US commitment to Iraq is limited, even if he refuses to name a date.