Last november, as Democrats rode a wave of war fatigue into office,one thing finally seemed clear: The hour of withdrawal was nearing.Even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was busy studying how to throwin the towel gently. For people who hated the war, the electionpromised clarity on the direction the country should move in whenit came to Iraq--namely, toward the exit.

Six months later, the new Democratic Congress is in a frustratingstandoff with the White House. George W. Bush refuses to signlegislation imposing timelines on the U.S. occupation--at presstime, he was set to veto the first such bill. And Democrats, whocampaigned for a swift end to the war, have been bickering overtimelines and resolutions while reluctantly coughing up money tocontinue the war. It all looks rather futile. A public that expectedclarity on the war is getting nothing but mixed signals. That,however, may be the most we can hope for given the circumstances.

One group with no patience for this muddle is Republicans (plus JoeLieberman), who complain that Democrats are demoralizing the troopsand emboldening the enemy. In fact, quite by accident, theDemocrats have introduced just the level of uncertainty we need toinfluence the Iraqi government. It took Bush's secretary ofdefense, of all people, to make this point: "The debate inCongress," Robert Gates said this month, "has been helpful indemonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience has beenlimited. " Thanks to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, he explained,Iraqis now understand "that this is not an open-ended commitment."That understanding is critical to anything even resembling successin Iraq. As General David Petraeus has said, the war cannot be wonmilitarily; only political compromise among warring Iraqi factionswill lead to security and stability.

Another group displeased with this unintended good-cop, bad-coppolicy is opponents of the war. They have discovered, just as NewtGingrich did a dozen years before, that it's extremely difficultfor Congress to govern the country over the opposition of thepresident. Given that the Democrats have slim margins in bothhouses, and that the executive branch has enormous control overforeign policy, ending the war in six months is not a realisticgoal--and not desirable.

The situation in Iraq does look marginally less grim than it didbefore General Petraeus took charge. When flunkies of Moqtada AlSadr left the Iraqi government to protest the U.S. occupation,Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, who was installed with Sadr'ssupport, stood his ground and survived. The surge has reduced deathsquad executions (if not spectacular car bombings). The governmenthas made some progress toward a crucial agreement to distributenational oil revenue.

Moreover, the conduct of the war is now no longer in the hands ofideologues and incompetents. Following a string of bunglingcommanders in Iraq, Petraeus, the Army's leading counterinsurgencyexpert who brought security to Mosul, is in charge. The new U.S.ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, is one of the country's mostexperienced Middle East diplomats (and one who predicted sectarianchaos before the war began). Gates has so far been more than just aCheney apparatchik, as evidenced by his off-message comments aboutthe useful pressure provided by Democrats. And Condoleezza Rice'splanned return to the Middle East next month to meet withrepresentatives from Iraq's neighbors suggests a promising degreeof administration engagement. The flurry of military and diplomaticactivity that accompanies the surge is cause for--well, perhaps notoptimism per se, but at least something more than utterhopelessness.

The prospects of a passable political solution are remote but real,and the consequences of withdrawing without one are dire. One lasttry, therefore, seems worthwhile. Moreover, what the administrationand its defenders won't admit is that Democratic opposition is oneof the things that just might make the new strategy plausible.

If the Democrats had the White House right now, they would be in aposition to make radical changes on Iraq policy--say, redeployingtroops from the major cities to an over-the-horizon force taskedwith protecting refugees and destroying Al Qaeda cells. But theydon't have the White House, and the power of the purse turns out tobe a frustratingly blunt instrument. Given the stubbornintransigence of the Bush administration, war policy via gridlockis far from the worst course.

Chris Dodd's Low-Carb Diet

Sometimes it seems like Chris Dodd would have to appear in a stringbikini on "Girls Gone Wild" to garner press for his presidentialcampaign. But, last week in New Hampshire, he did something evenbolder: During a speech on energy policy, he suggested that thebest way to wean the country off fossil fuels was to institute atax on carbon--an idea that, among politicians, only Al Gore hasdared to suggest. Later, a stunned George Stephanopoulos asked Dodd:"Are you worried, when you talk about taxes, that you're leadingwith your chin?"

As they weigh the best means to stave off global warming,congressional Democrats have generally rallied around some variantof a cap-and-trade regime, which would set a national limit oncarbon emissions and allow companies to buy and sell pollutioncredits. It's a reasonable idea that worked with acid-rainlegislation in the 1990s, but it also has problems. Europe'scarbon-trading program has suffered setbacks over the last fewyears, as businesses learn to exploit loopholes in the regime orlobby for extra pollution allowances.

With that in mind, many environmentalists and economists now favor acarbon tax as a quicker and more efficient way to encourage energyconservation and reduce fossil fuel consumption by raising prices.(Some advocate combining it with a payroll tax cut to ease the painon consumers.) Because it's more transparent, a tax would be harderfor companies to game.

But the idea tends to be unpopular among politicians. MostRepublicans would sooner chop off their right arms than raisetaxes. Democrats still recall the thumping they received in 1993after passing a simple BTU tax in the House. Companies like G.E.and DuPont, meanwhile, are mainly supporting a cap-and- trade billbecause they expect to profit from it.

All of which explains why Barbara Boxer has pointedly ruled out acarbon tax as she pushes to introduce climate-change legislation inthe Senate. But Boxer is thinking of the present when she should belooking to the future. Even if Bush does sign a cap-and-trade bill,it will almost certainly be one that is too weak to make a realdent in the problem. And Democrats and moderate Republicans do nothave the votes to override a Bush veto. So real progress on theissue is not likely to happen until January 2009. Two years is along time, and, with the conversation on global warming shifting sorapidly, the unthinkable could soon become quite feasible. In otherwords, laying the groundwork now for a carbon tax is a sound idea.At the very least, if enough Democrats start murmuring about acarbon tax, it might persuade nervous corporations to embracecap-and-trade as the "moderate" alternative. So, while Dodd'sleading with his chin, it might not be a bad idea if more of hiscolleagues had his back.

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