The main partisan dispute over Iraq these days seems to be about whether or not we should set a timetable or deadline for withdrawal. Many rightwingers argue that to set a timetable would "throw a lifeline" to the insurgency, by making it clear that if they can just continue their strategy until that date, then they will win. This is a debatable point, but let's assume for a moment that the rightwingers are actually right about this argument. Even if that's the case, I still think that we ought to be setting deadlines: not so much military deadlines, however, as domestic political deadlines.
The need for a timetable for withdrawal is not about military strategy; it's hard to know for sure how things will unfold military, and the enemy clearly cannot be given the impression that there is a clear date after which a stalemate will transform instantly into a victory for them.
Rather, the kind of timetable we need is about political accountability. In other words, the Bush regime needs to be called on to make a commitment to the American people that if we do not succeed in improving the situation by date X, to the point where troop withdrawal is possible, then heads will roll in Washington. The statement that the Democrats should be pushing for, in other words, is not "We're committed to bringing the troops home by January 1, 2007 [or whatever arbitrary date]"; but rather, "We're promising that if we haven't stabilized Iraq by January 1, 2007 so that the troops can come home, then we'll bring in a more competent team."
In other words, what the American people have every right to expect from our "MBA President" is not just a statement of goals (and say what you will of Bush, but he's certainly fine at this task), but also metrics that allow us to measure whether he is making progress against those goals. In business, if you put together a business plan, and then your cost overrun by several hundred percent in order to achieve your goals, then you get fired. The same thing should happen in politics.
The subtext behind the arguments about deadlines and timetables is BushCo's perceived lack of candor about what they are doing. "Tell us what your goals are, tell us how much you think it's going to cost, and let us make the judgment on whether we believe that that's worth it," is the fundamental thing people want from the Bushies. The shifting rationales for the War, the refusal to make predictions about costs (except to dismiss estimates which turned out to be all too accurate), have generated an impression that these guys simply make decisions without any view to a cost/benefit analysis, or indeed that they don't care about costs at all. There's the sense that this regime is deliberately keeping the American people in the dark as to what they are up to, and the call for a deadline is thus really a call for a standard of accountability.
The Democrats (and anyone who is in favor of seeing the war pursued in a competent manner) needs to make clear that the goal of a timetable in Iraq is not to create a strategic straightjacket for our military planners, but rather to define a standard of accountability for the political leadership.