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Carl Levin, Please Don't Scare The Puppies

I normally love Michigan's Carl Levin, the simultaneously hard-assed and endearingly grandfatherly Iraq expert in the Senate (here's a link to his coos-of-appreciation-inducing Time award as one of "America's Best Senators"!). The Iraq measures he's introduced this year, often with Rhode Islander Jack Reed, have always been smart -- they keep a strict focus on the desired outcome, withdrawal, while resisting pressure to buck the political and technical realities of how that's going to happen. But he needs a new p.r. guy. As Armed Services chairman, Levin is in charge with pushing forward the Democrats' efforts to move Iraq policy, and here's what he's come up with: Give Bush his emergency supplemental war funds in itty-bitty rations, so he's always on the verge of running out of cash and is forced to pull troops home. “That would put some pressure on the president to have a timetable to move the [troop withdrawal] process along with greater certainty,” he said.

The problem is that Hill Republicans have become extremely suspicious of covert end-the-Iraq-war tactics, bills that claim to be doing one thing while really accomplishing another: Witness the Republican senators' frantic flight from Jim Webb's "dwell time" amendment in September. Webb's was a clever measure that played on Republicans' desire to be supporting the troops at every instant by congressionally mandating that troops rest at home for as long as they are deployed -- a rule that would, incidentally, sharply limit the number of troops available to deploy to Iraq. But an eleventh-hour desperate lobbying campaign by the White House convinced a number of nominally anti-war Republican senators that Webb's amendment insulted their intelligence.

Luring enough skittish Republicans towards Iraq legislation is like training a group of haughty, pack-minded, and intensely Pavlovian poodles to come when called. Okay, the Webb trick didn't work: move on to something else. Anything that smacks of something they've already rejected -- in this case, a measure that seeks to end our troop involvement in Iraq by mandating something relatively unrelated, like that emergency supplementals should cover shorter time frames -- will instantly set them howling and scampering away. Conditioning war funds on redeployment isn't a new, nor a bad, idea, but it's crucial that Levin not suggest there's a back-door withdrawal afoot.

--Eve Fairbanks