Here we have one of the most widely derided Presidents in the history of the United States and a war abhorred by a majority of Americans, and the Democrats have near zero traction as a credible party of opposition. The sequence of events after Representative Jack Murtha’s great speech tells the story. Listen to Murtha and you are hearing how the US commanders in Iraq really see the situation: “Many say the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowered its standards. They expect to take 20 percent category 4, which is the lowest category, which they said they’d never take…. Much of our ground equipment is worn out.” On Iraq’s condition: “Oil production and energy production are below prewar level. You remember they said that was going to pay for the war, and it’s below prewar level. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation…. Unemployment is 60 percent…. Clean water is scarce, and they only spent $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects.” “And, most importantly–this is the most important point–incidents have increased from 150 a week to over 700 in the last year.”

Then, amid his tears, came Murtha’s sketches of war’s consequences in today’s America: “Now, let me personalize this thing for you…. I have a young fellow in my district who was blinded, and he lost his foot. And they did everything they could for him at Walter Reed, then they sent him home. His father was in jail; he had nobody at home. Imagine this: Young kid that age–22, 23 years old–goes home to nobody. VA did everything they could do to help him. He was reaching out, so they sent him–to make sure that he was blind, they sent him to Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins started to send him bills. Then the collection agency started sending bills…. Imagine, a young person being blinded, without a foot, and he’s getting bills from a collection agency.”

Murtha’s call for rapid pullout of US troops from Iraq was capped by one of the most amazing expressions of political reality ever uttered on Capitol Hill: “I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy–immediately redeploy…. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process.”

This was a 73-year-old Marine veteran with Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, one of the armed forces’ most constant supports. What better advocate for a speedy end to an unpopular war could the Democrats ever hope for? Yet barely had he stopped speaking when the halls of Congress echoed with the squeaks of Democrats whimpering in panic as they skipped clear of Murtha’s shadow. John Kerry hurried before the cameras of MSNBC to frag Murtha and tell Chris Matthews how he, John Kerry, has a better plan, involving something in the nature of a schedule for withdrawal possibly limping into action in 2006.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, abruptly retreated from a scheduled press conference expressing support for Murtha. Scenting weakness, the Republicans put up a resolution calling for withdrawal now. Democratic panic escalated into pell-mell retreat, shouting back over their shoulders that they weren’t going to fall for such a dirty Republican trick. Why not? What better chance will they get to go on record against the war? In the end just three Democrats (Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, José Serrano of New York and Robert Wexler of Florida) voted for immediate withdrawal and six voted “present.”

The truth about the war may be clear to Murtha and 60 percent of the American people, but not to the three Democratic senators interested in the presidential nomination in 2008. Even after Murtha’s lead Russell Feingold continues to mumble about the “target date” for withdrawal being 2006, as does Kerry. For her part Hillary Clinton announced just before the Thanksgiving recess that an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq would be “a big mistake” that “would cause more problems for us in America…. It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state.”

The importance of Murtha’s speech was that it vaulted over these laboriously prudent schedules into what is actually happening in Iraq. As his military sources in Iraq most certainly urged him to point out, the main fuel for the Sunni Arab insurgency is foreign occupation. So long as it continues, the resistance is likely to go on. The idea that the Sunnis taking part in the election somehow means a shift from military action is also baloney.

Would there actually be a power vacuum followed by civil war if the United States withdrew? The Sunnis can’t take Baghdad. They can’t penetrate the main Kurdish or Shiite areas. How exactly is the US military preventing a civil war at the moment? The refusal of the Shiites to retaliate is the most important factor here, and this is primarily the result of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani standing firmly against it.

Now suppose Sistani calls for a withdrawal. Then the United States and Britain will have little choice but to go, probably over an eighteen-month period. As recently as late November a gathering in Cairo of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders (under the auspices of the Arab League) called for a timetable for US withdrawal and also said that Iraq’s opposition had a “legitimate right to resistance.” The Sunnis are not going to stop fighting while the occupation continues. The quid pro quo for US withdrawal would presumably be a cease-fire by the Sunnis and an end to suicide bombing attacks.

All those Democratic Party withdrawal dates are predicated on the idea that the Iraqi army and security forces will be built up and can take over. This scenario is as unrealistic as calls to “internationalize” the occupying force. All the evidence shows that only an agreement on the US departure will lead to an end to the armed resistance, just as Murtha said.