Here's an Iraq war math problem: What do you get by adding "timetable for pulling our troops out" to "staying as long as it takes?" To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how anyone would make such a calculation. But if you guessed the answer is six months, you'd be in agreement with a number of high-ranking officials.
The six-month time frame is like a political pressure-release valve that helps keep public debate about US policy from building up to explosive levels. The first example I noticed was in a Reuters news story Nov. 28, 2005. Virginia Sen. John Warner (R) had just appeared on a TV talk show and was quoted as saying, "We have got to stay firm for the next six months. It is a critical period ... in this Iraqi situation, to restore full sovereignty in that country."
A few paragraphs later, a quote appeared from Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (D), who had also been interviewed on TV. Senator Biden said he didn't believe the war was lost but added, "I think we have a six-month window here to get it right. But I have to admit that I think the chances are not a lot better than 50-50."
Finding middle ground in the Iraq debate is becoming more difficult each day. For many Americans, the central issue is no longer about achieving a positive outcome; it's more about avoiding negative scenarios. A lot of us are alarmed by the notion that violence in Iraq would get massively worse if our troops pulled out too fast. But we're also alarmed by the prospect of staying the course on a complicated, dangerous mission that has no end in sight.
At the end of May, I scanned the news wires but didn't see any updated evaluations from Biden or Warner. What did grab my attention was a statement by the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. Speaking to USA Today after a state of emergency had been declared in Basra, Mr. Khalilzad said, "The next three to six months will be critical in terms of this government's image and impact on the Iraqi people."
Using the six-month gambit to keep morale from slipping during wartime isn't a new tactic. In a brilliant memoir entitled "Those Who Fall," World War II aviator John Muirhead recalled a visit from an intelligence officer who exhorted the squad of B-17 pilots to improve their bombing by saying, "Keep your formation tight. Hit your aiming point. Be sure and pick up your IP, clean and fast. You do that, gentlemen, and you'll shorten the war by six months."
So I wasn't surprised to see a story in the July 20 issue of The Washington Post that included a quote from Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R), a onetime backer of the war. He now favors a partial troop withdrawal as a way of prodding the Iraqi government. "If we don't take the training wheels off," Mr. Gutknecht said, "we will be in the same place in six months that we're in today."
All of which brings up this question: How many of these six-month units can we keep adding to the Iraq timeline? I know that's another tough calculation. Does anyone want to take a wild guess?
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.