A PLAN FOR WITHDRAWAL….William Saletan has an interesting column in Slate today that analogizes a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq to the scheduled withdrawal of benefits enacted by welfare reform in 1996. By providing the Iraqis with the open ended “welfare” of troop protection, he says, we’re removing their incentive to provide for themselves:

What have the assembly’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders done for the past five months? Bickered over every petty dispute. How much of the constitution have they drafted? Zip. Why are they bickering instead of buckling down? Because they can. Because they don’t have to cut fast deals, meet the deadline, and give every faction a stake in the government to hold off the insurgency. They don’t have to do these things, because 140,000 American troops are propping them up.

Saletan may be on to something. Like the Iraqis, the California legislature virtually never meets its constitutionally mandated goal of producing a budget by June 30. Instead, they bicker like children for months on end, barely even stopping for breath when the end of June sails by and newspaper editorialists begin their annual chitter-chatter of indignation.

But what happens next? Answer: they come up with a budget. When? Usually just in time to keep the schools from shutting down. That would piss people off, after all.

In other words, artificial deadlines don’t mean much, and Iraqis know this just as well as Sacramento politicos. Real deadlines, on the other hand, the kind that lead to real consequences, produce action.

So here’s the deal: the Iraqi transitional assembly is supposed to have a constitution drafted by August 15. Let’s announce that troop withdrawals will start on September 15.

The constitution is supposed be put up for a vote on October 15. Let’s announce that the second round of troop withdrawals will commence on November 15.

Elections for a government under the new constitution are supposed to be held on December 15. Let’s announce that the third round of withdrawals will begin on January 15, 2006. After that, withdrawals will continue in an orderly way until the coalition presence is completely gone.

If the Iraqis ask for an extension, as the transitional law allows them to do, we should agree to push all these dates forward by an additional month. This sends a clear message: make the deals you need to make. Form a government. Get your troops trained. Because by the end of 2006, after nearly four years of war and occupation, coalition troops will be gone.

This doesn’t mean the end of American help. Postwar aid has proven crucial to promoting stability and democracy in the aftermath of past conflicts, so we have every reason to be generous in providing reconstruction assistance of all kinds to the Iraqis. But it’s time to let them know in a credible way that we aren’t going to be there forever. Maybe that’s just the motivation they need.

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