It’s not a “timetable” for extricating U.S troops from Iraq that George W. Bush is suddenly talking about, and heaven help anyone who accuses him of proposing a “timeline.” No, the Decider says he is now amenable to a “time horizon,” which apparently is a whole different kind of time thing — not at all like the sensible course of action that Democrats and other critics of the Iraq occupation have been demanding.

If Bush were known for exquisite subtlety in his use of the language, I’d note that a horizon is, by definition, a line that can never be reached. But pigs will streak across the sky at Mach 2 before this president displays a diabolical mastery of semantics. His new “time horizon” formulation is just smoke, intended to obfuscate and stall. In six months, Iraq becomes somebody else’s problem.

The shift does put loyal supporters of Bush’s Iraq policy in an untenable position, though. Their mantra has been that anyone who suggests a date for U.S. withdrawal, however vague or distant or aspirational, is being “defeatist.” Now, logically, they ought to be saying the same thing about the president.

John McCain is the real victim of Bush’s rhetorical moonwalk. After yoking himself to the president’s stay-the-course policy and musing that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for a century, he finds himself virtually alone in advocating what is now an extremist position.

Events have conspired to make the strategy advocated by Barack Obama and other leading Democrats — set a timetable for shutting down the sideshow in Iraq; focus attention and resources on the main event in Afghanistan — the only sane way to proceed. For one thing, the Iraqis are making it clear that the time is coming for us to leave. In an interview published Saturday in the German magazine Der Spiegel, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki basically endorsed Obama’s 16-month time frame for withdrawal.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad later released a statement from Maliki’s office that claimed, without citing specifics, that the prime minister’s remarks had been “mistranslated” and “not conveyed accurately.” But on Monday, after Obama met with Maliki in Baghdad, a spokesman for the prime minister reiterated the Iraqi government’s view that a “timetable” for U.S. withdrawal is now desirable. The schedule or horizon or whatever the spokesman proposed — U.S. troops out in 2010 — coincides roughly with Obama’s plan.

Obama spent the weekend in Afghanistan, where he found the situation “precarious and urgent.” He told CBS News that Afghanistan “has to be our central focus, the central front in our battle against terrorists.” More troops and materiel are needed now, he said, adding that “if we wait until the next administration, it could be a year before we get those troops on the ground.”

Attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan have become much more frequent and brazen over the past year, including a frontal assault on a forward base earlier this month that left nine Americans dead. The Taliban, far from being a spent force, is reconstituted and apparently re-energized. Across the border in the lawless hinterlands of Pakistan, al-Qaida is believed to have established new bases and training camps.

Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has said that he believes al-Qaida may be de-emphasizing Iraq and shifting its focus to Afghanistan. This should come as a surprise to no one, except perhaps the man in the Oval Office. Iraq was never anything more than a windfall to al-Qaida, an opportunity to engage and tie down the enemy — that would be us — while headquarters enjoyed a respite to regroup and rebuild.

The idea that al-Qaida, whose membership consists of fanatical Sunni Muslims, would ever expect to establish a serious operational base in majority-Shiite Iraq has always been absurd. The terrorists’ goal was simply to commit as much anti-American mayhem as possible, for as long as possible.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan “sooner rather than later.” But that’s easier said than done. Today there are more U.S. troops in Iraq than before last year’s troop surge — despite the token withdrawals that Bush has been touting.

The occupation of Iraq continues to devour resources that could and should be put to better use. The day when the real fight against al-Qaida can be resumed has not yet arrived. But even George Bush can see it on the horizon.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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