BARELY TWO WEEKS AFTER THEY HANDED the Republicans their much-deserved “thumpin’,” is it somehow unfair or unseemly to already be criticizing the Democrats for their vagueness on Iraq? Hardly.

A first postelection poll by the AP revealed that barely 29 percent of American adults thought the Democrats had an actual plan for Iraq. And considering that it is precisely the war that lost it all for the Republicans, the Democrats ought to be scared stiff by those numbers.

But why should the public’s skepticism be any surprise? Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi — already battling insider fears that she might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer — squandered last week’s postelection glow by rubbing our noses in Jack Murtha’s ethical morass instead of further forcing George W. Bush to answer for an Iraqi war spinning out of all control.

Pelosi and her pals tell us that ending the war in Iraq is their highest priority, but they can’t get past such platitudinous proposals as “phased redeployment.” Some speak of beginning the withdrawal a fudgy four to six months from now, an arbitrary number plucked from some dank crack somewhere. What different state will Iraq be in sometime in March as opposed to tomorrow?

Meanwhile, Pelosi’s Senate cohort, the man I like to call Harry “Thin” Reid, gave the Bushies a free tummy patting a few days ago when he said he was confident that former CIA Director Robert Gates would be confirmed as Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement. This is the new, tough congressional oversight the Democrats have vowed to impose? The man named by the Bush White House to conduct a failing war now won’t have to worry about what he presents to the new Democratic Congress, because he knows he’s about to be rubber-stamped? Wouldn’t Reid and the Democrats — not to mention the rest of us — be better off making Gates sweat just a bit before he’s given the nod? Shouldn’t he have to at least pretend to offer the Armed Services Committee some viable alternative to the present debacle?

The Democrats’ fuzziness on getting us out of Iraq is central to their strategy of taking political cover underneath the upcoming policy report from Jim Baker’s Iraq Study Group. The thinking among Democrats has been that the report would be ambiguous enough that they could embrace it simultaneously with the White House and not have to go out on a partisan limb to call for withdrawal from Iraq. Each side, the Dems and the White House, would be free to enact the usual sort of Kabuki: both pretending not to capitulate to the other while eventually and quietly agreeing on the same policy of gradual disengagement. Not such a horrible idea and not such a high price to pay if it would work. But it won’t.

We now learn that the handful of magical bromides that Baker is stirring up for bipartisan consumption will include not an immediate troop drawdown but rather an initial escalation of some 20,000 U.S. combat troops, a “final push” for victory, as it’s being termed. You want redeployment, Baker seems to be saying to the Democrats — okay, we’ll give you some. But into Iraq, not out.

Dragging behind as Baker’s tail, then, could wind up being a suicide strategy for Democrats. The sooner they detach themselves from Bush 41’s Best Buddy and put forward their own independent, aggressive and clear-cut plan to end the war, the better. If not, they risk painting themselves into the corner of supporting the proposed coming escalation and thereby proving to the American public in spades that their “change of course” in Iraq is but a lightly perfumed version of business as usual.

The Democrats — one day very soon — are going to have to move from their ambiguous whining about the “management of the war” to directly criticizing “the war” itself. The current tap dance ain’t gonna cut it. Even some of the most cautious critics of war policy, those who until recently argued that pulling the troops out would make things worse, are starting to reconsider. The outlandish behavior of the Iraqi government last week — the mass kidnapping of scores of education officials by uniformed security forces, the ordered arrest of the country’s leading Sunni cleric, the furious stoking of an already barbarous civil war — has convinced them that the credible threat of immediate U.S. troop withdrawal is the only measure that has even a remote chance of forcing the Baghdad regime to get serious.

Moral considerations and the human cost aside, who can guarantee that Iraq, as we know it, will even hold up for another four, six or a dozen months? Actual policy experts (as opposed to bloviating politicians from both parties) are loudly warning that Iraq currently teeters on the edge of self-destruction. Worse, they say that if the current course continues, it will be only a prelude to regional conflagration. Soon enough, says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, “The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body.”

How in good conscience can we ask for any more American soldiers to die for this? Waiting for Baker seems a particularly awful idea. Hoping that the same administration that got us into this black hole is somehow going to get us out seems to be a rather pointless fantasy.

So, yeah, it’s great that the Democrats hold the new congressional majority. But I want to know, when’s that big Hill press conference coming to announce the congressional plan to get the U.S. out of Iraq? Wouldn’t it be preferable to move before Baker does and force him to react instead of vice versa?

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