A firm deadline for withdrawing troops can force the president to change course

The war in Iraq is the worst foreign policy mistake in my lifetime and perhaps in American history.

The American people have had enough. They yearn for leadership to end this disastrous war. But President George W. Bush and those in Congress who have stood with him since the beginning keep finding ways to block efforts to end the war.

I voted against this war and have been an outspoken opponent of the president’s policies since he first turned his attention away from al-Qaida and toward Iraq. During the October 2002 House debate on the war resolution, I predicted, correctly as it has turned out, that “if the U.S. acts unilaterally or with just a few other nations, there is a far higher risk of fueling resentment in Arab and Muslim nations and swelling the ranks of the anti-U.S. terrorists.”

Earlier this month, the National Counterterrorism Center reported that anti-American hatred, fueled by the Iraq war, has expanded the terrorist ranks immensely. And bogging our forces down in Iraq has allowed al-Qaida to rebuild its strength in the mountainous region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To fight a resurgent al-Qaida, we must remove our troops from the crossfire of Iraq’s civil war and stop fanning the flames of Islamic extremism. Even if his supporters in the House and Senate don’t get it, the American people know that President Bush will not act until Congress passes a law establishing a deadline that requires him to do so.

True, some of the president’s most consistently loyal supporters have lately become vocal critics of his policies, but their votes to allow him to continue those policies speak far louder than their harsh rhetoric. They carefully parse their words to condemn “the surge in Baghdad” but not the surge itself.

Instead of joining me and others who have voted for a firm timeline to end the war, they float ineffectual alternatives that, when closely examined, let President Bush continue the same failed policies that haven’t worked for five years. For example, some propose calling on the president to send Congress a plan this fall to confine the U.S. military in Iraq to securing the borders, protecting U.S. interests and fighting the terrorists in Iraq.

Such hollow legislation won’t bring any of our troops out of Iraq.

Others propose “changing the mission” or “a transition” of our military in Iraq with no assurance of a date certain for their redeployment to commence, much less for it to be completed. They say the “change the mission” approach will lead to reductions of American forces in Iraq, but they present no facts to back up that claim. What they don’t say is that their “transition” keeps American troops stuck in a conflict between warring Iraqi factions. Sadly, proposals like these are simply political cover, designed to suggest action, when the intent and effect are merely to prevent passage of legislation that will end this war.

In January, the president forecast that by this past spring his surge strategy – sending an additional 30,000 Americans directly into the crossfire of the Iraqi civil war – would quell the violence and give the Iraqi government the chance to make progress in assuming responsibility for security.

Seven months later, the number of battle-ready Iraqi regiments has dropped from 10 to six, and more than 600 Americans have died and thousands more have been wounded in the bloodiest period since the war began. Rather than resolve their disputes and prove their capability to govern, the Iraqi Parliament is taking a month off while our servicemen and women risk life and limb daily.

Yet, many in the House and Senate insist on waiting until September before reaching any conclusions on the surge, and won’t commit to support a mandatory redeployment timeframe even then.

The American people deserve and our nation’s security requires better leadership than this.

I first called for a firm deadline to redeploy our forces out of Iraq more than 18 months ago. Maine’s former senator, George Mitchell, successfully employed a deadline in his diplomatic effort that brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian strife. I believe a statutory deadline is the only way to make President Bush change course and the best hope for forcing the Iraqis to take over their own security.

We are all grateful to the men and women of our military who have served in Iraq with such great ability, dedication and valor. It’s time to bring them safely home to their families.

It’s time for leadership to end the war in Iraq.

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, represents Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is a candidate for U.S. Senate.