McCain grills Gates: How fixed is this 2011 timetable for withdrawal?

Says Maverick of The One’s stated grounds for getting out, “It’s got to be the appropriate conditions [on the ground] or it’s got to be an arbitrary date. You can’t have both.” Can’t you, though? McCain himself can tantalizingly close to having it both ways last July when he said 16 months sounded like a “pretty good timetable” to start leaving Iraq, provided of course that the timetable was aspirational only. If conditions on the ground changed, the clock would have to be reset. Which … is pretty much Gates’s position here. The key difference seems to be that he and Obama will insist on withdrawing some troops in July 2011, come hell or high water, but “some” can mean a lot of things. At TNR, Michael Crowley warns the left to prepare itself for heart-ache:

And then there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, was asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham whether the July 2011 had “locked us in” to a withdrawal. “I do not believe we have locked ourselves in to leaving,” Clinton responded, before repeating the core administration talking point: “By July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions.” But “the beginning of a responsible transition” can mean almost anything. It can be nothing more than a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the airport.

Or it can mean something like what Defense Secretary Robert Gates described this morning at that Senate hearing. Asked by John McCain whether July 2011 amounts to an “an arbitrary date” to begin a transition. Gates replied that the national security team concluded “that we would be in a position particularly in uncontested areas where we would be able to begin that transition.” Note the emphasis: particularly in uncontested areas. One would hope we can withdraw from peaceful areas within eighteen months. But there won’t be very many of those. People hoping that this war will come to a swift end beginning in the summer of 2011 would do well to understand that now, or risk severe disappointment down the road.

Actually, Gates qualifies the timetable even further than that. At 3:00, after trying to placate McCain with promises to fully review conditions in December 2010, he all but admits that the timetable could change subject to the review. It’s not so much fixed, then, as it is urgently aspirational — which makes it virtually indistinguishable from McCain’s campaign stance on Iraq.

As for McCain’s bewilderment over how they arrived at July 2011 as the date, the probable answer is (a) that will give McChrystal at least one full year with a fully built-up force of 100,000 troops (remember, the new troops are set to be deployed by summer), and (b) The One simply had to throw his base some kind of bone to prove that he wants to leave. Per Crowley’s point, he threw them pretty much the smallest bone available. Thank heaven for small favors.

In case you’re feeling grumpy at Gates for being an emissary of Hopenchange, read the excerpt from his opening statement on the Taliban. Goldfarb’s entirely right that this would seem — emphasis on “seem” — to put the right’s worst fears to rest.

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