How to solve a problem like Maria's

It is no longer an open secret that Maria Cantwell's re-election campaign for the U.S. Senate is bogged down in a political quagmire over her position on the Iraq war.

The Vietnam analogies seem apposite. Cantwell's continued support for the occupation of Iraq and her initial vote to authorize the invasion in 2002 have generated a growing insurgency from many of her otherwise supportive constituents who oppose the war. This has weakened her grass-roots support, subjected her appearances to protests, and has led some to embrace anti-war candidates who call for an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal. She is losing hearts and minds.

But the truth is that Sen. Cantwell is largely facing an Iraq problem of her own making and could undo most of the damage without repudiating her initial vote for the war.

The senator has boxed herself in a corner: Having voted for the war in the first place, she appears to believe that calling for a U.S. troop withdrawal now would be irresponsible.

In other words, Cantwell subscribes to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's so-called "Pottery Barn rule," that by invading Iraq and overthrowing its brutal regime "you're going to be owning this place." Owning this place for Cantwell means that having broken Iraq, for better or worse, the U.S. has a responsibility to do everything it can to usher in a legitimate national-unity government and train Iraqi security forces to take control of their own security.

Echoing the Bush administration, Cantwell's position is that only when certain conditions on the ground are met — standing up a legitimate Iraqi government and a viable Iraqi security force — can the U.S. begin to withdraw its forces, not before.

The fundamental flaw in Cantwell's position, however, is that she has tied her legitimate sense of responsibility for breaking Iraq to the mast of the Bush administration's shipwrecked policies and its increasingly surrealist claims that "staying the course" is the only way to improve the conditions on the ground in Iraq.

But let's be clear: Having broken Iraq, the U.S. is not in the process of fixing it. And the U.S. troop presence is not helping the country transition to something better, it is the primary obstacle.

U.S. troops are what fuel the insurgency and stoke the flames of civil war. As long as U.S. troops remain, the country's security forces will continually face resistance attacks, leaving a security vacuum in protecting Iraqi civilians from sectarian violence and criminal mayhem.

And as long as U.S. troops remain, the U.S.-backed "national unity government" will remain weak, divided and isolated inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone. That U.S. troops were powerless to prevent the sectarian bloodletting that followed the Samarra mosque bombing only underscores how little U.S. troops can do to quell civil conflict.

The only way for Cantwell to break out of her box and stay consistent with her sense of responsibility to Iraq at this time is to endorse a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Endorsing a timetable for withdrawal is not the same as embracing the bumper-sticker slogan "U.S. Out Now!" Cantwell can choose from a variety of credible options, including Rep. John Murtha's call to bring the roughly 136,000 troops home in six months; Sen. John Kerry's recent call for troops out by the end of 2006; and Lawrence Korb's and Brian Katulis' "strategic redeployment" plan favored by a growing number of House Democrats, which calls for all National Guard and Reserve units out by 2006, with the remaining 60,000 soldiers out by the end of 2007.

Regardless of which plan she endorses, endorsing a timetable for withdrawal is the right step to start the process of fixing Iraq. Conditions in Iraq do not stand a chance of improving until the majority of Iraqis understand and believe that the U.S. military is not planning to stay in Iraq indefinitely.

Only a clear timetable for U.S. withdrawal and a declaration that the U.S. has no plan for a permanent military presence in Iraq have the potential to transform the dynamics in Iraq by clearing the way for a political solution by Iraqis themselves. It would open the door for a reciprocal cease-fire with insurgents and then to convening a Geneva-style conference under United Nations' auspices among all Iraqi groupings to negotiate a deal on security, militias and the division of power and resources. The U.S. would withdraw as this process unfolds.

Endorsing a withdrawal timetable would also end the polarization between Cantwell and her constituency, shifting the terms of the debate to the more fruitful question of when and how the process of rebuilding Iraq can take place.

Unless this happens, Cantwell will risk confronting the last Vietnam War analogy — defeat.

Steve Niva teaches international politics and Middle East studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Steve Niva