The House of Representatives now has a chance to lead the nation toward a wiser, more responsible Iraq policy. It is scheduled to vote this week on whether to impose benchmarks for much-needed political progress on the Iraqi government -- and link them to the continued presence of American combat forces. The bill also seeks to lessen the intolerable strains on American forces, requiring President Bush to certify that units are fit for battle before sending any troops to Iraq. Both of these requirements are long overdue. The House should vote yes, by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin.
It is normally the president who provides the leadership for American foreign policy and decides when there needs to be a change of course. But Mr. Bush stubbornly refuses to do either, and the country cannot afford to wait out the rest of his term. Given Mr. Bush's failure, Congress has a responsibility to do all it can to use Washington's remaining leverage to try to lessen the chaos that will likely follow an American withdrawal -- no matter when it happens -- and to ensure that the credibility and readiness of the United States military is preserved.
House Democrats have wisely moved beyond their earlier infatuation with mere deadlines. The benchmarks spelled out in this legislation, which also provides the next round of money for the war, require that the Iraqi government stop shielding and encouraging the Shiite militias that are helping drive the killing. United States and Iraqi security forces must be allowed to pursue all extremists, Shiite and Sunni, disarm sectarian militias and provide 'evenhanded security for all Iraqis.'
The benchmarks also require the Iraqi government to take measurable steps toward national reconciliation: equitably distributing oil revenues, opening up more political and economic opportunities to the Sunni minority and amending the constitution to discourage further fragmentation.
The legislation does not settle for more empty promises -- from Mr. Bush and the Iraqis. It would require the president to provide Congress, by July, with an initial detailed report on Iraq's efforts to meet these benchmarks. By October, the Iraqi government would have to complete a specific set of legislative and constitutional steps. Failure to meet these deadlines would trigger the withdrawal of all American combat forces -- but not those training Iraqis or fighting Al Qaeda -- to be concluded in April 2008. If the benchmarks were met, American combat forces would remain until the fall of 2008.
The measure would also bar sending any unit to Iraq that cannot be certified as fully ready. It sets a reasonable 365-day limit on combat tours for the Army and a shorter 210-day combat tour limit for the Marines. As for how many troops can remain in Iraq -- until the House's deadlines for withdrawal -- the legislation imposes no reduction on the level of roughly 132,000 in place at the start of this year.
Critics will complain that the House is doing the Pentagon's planning. But the Pentagon and Mr. Bush have clearly failed to protect America's ground forces from the ever more costly effects of extended, accelerated and repeated deployments.
If Iraq's leaders were truly committed to national reconciliation and reining in their civil war, there would be no need for benchmarks or deadlines. But they are not. If Mr. Bush were willing to grasp Iraq's horrifying reality, he would be the one imposing benchmarks, timetables and readiness rules. He will not, so Congress must. American troops should not be trapped in the middle of a blood bath that neither Mr. Bush nor Iraq's leaders have the vision or the will to halt.