On November 15, 2005, America witnessed a sea change in the U.S. Senate and its vision for our mission in Iraq. On that day, 40 senators agreed that the president should offer to Congress and the American public an idea of when our military mission in Iraq can come to an end and our brave men and women in uniform can return home. While the vote failed, the fact that 40 senators voted for such a measure stands in striking contrast to the day in June when I became the first U.S. senator to call upon the president to offer such a flexible timetable, tied to specific benchmarks. While I received scant support within the Senate in the weeks and months that followed, the November 15 vote signals a significant shift in our country in favor of finally receiving some clarity from this administration on what our goals in Iraq are and when they can be achieved.

The president, who has repeatedly rejected the idea of a timetable, is one of a shrinking number of people who believe that the “stay the course” philosophy will achieve success in Iraq. A wide range of voices, American and Iraqi, military and civilian, Democratic and Republican, is growing louder each day in its call for a new direction in the administration’s Iraq policy. What we need is a public, flexible, realistic timetable that will tell people when and how we expect to finish the military mission in Iraq. I have suggested a target date of December 31, 2006, for withdrawing our military forces from Iraq.

Some have argued that the idea of a military timetable is designed to appeal to the American public but has no relationship to our security or to achieving policy goals in Iraq. Actually, it is just the opposite. Although Barry Posen and I differ on proposed target dates, he is right to argue that setting a timeframe has everything to do with improving our national-security strategy. Our fundamental national-security goal must be to combat the global terrorist networks that attacked and continue to threaten the United States. Our military presence in Iraq is undermining that goal. It is becoming increasingly clear that we have created a breeding ground for terrorism in Iraq and that the indefinite presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops is fueling, not dampening, the insurgency in that country.

In September 2005 General George Casey, the commanding general of the allied forces in Iraq, said that reducing the visibility and presence of coalition forces in Iraq would begin “taking away an element that fuels the insurgency.” Casey knows that our massive and seemingly indefinite military presence has fed this insurgency, making it easy for the insurgents to convince recruits that we are there to stay. That is not the fault of our men and women in uniform, who are serving courageously. It is the fault of the Bush administration for sending them into battle without a clearly defined or well-thought-out mission. In February, I asked one of the top allied military commanders in Iraq what would happen if we told the world that we had a timeframe for achieving our military mission in Iraq. He said—off the record—that nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents more than a clear, public plan and timeframe for a remaining U.S. mission. To the extent that we don’t explain our military goals in Iraq and when we hope to achieve them, we play into the hands of the insurgents. The insurgents are motivated by our presence, and they feed off conspiracy theories and suspicions regarding American intentions.

The lack of a flexible timetable doesn’t just feed the insurgency—it also discourages Iraqi ownership of their political process. By making it clear that the United States will not be there indefinitely, we will help the Iraqis move toward the real political independence they need, and we will dispel some of the cynicism about American intentions that empowers some of the more extreme elements of Iraqi society.

Finally, a flexible timetable is important because it enables us to devote more resources to the other national-security issues that demand our attention. We need to focus energy and resources on fighting global terrorist networks that threaten the United States, dealing with the threat of “loose nukes,” and repairing the damage done to our Army during the Iraq war, to name just a few urgent priorities. It is time to make sure that our Iraq policy is advancing our national-security goals. And of course our brave troops and their families deserve some clarity about how long they are likely to remain in Iraq.

The administration and its allies have offered various arguments as to why they can’t or won’t come up with a clear plan and timeline for military success in Iraq. One argument has been that the U.S. pullouts from Somalia in the 1990s and Lebanon in the 1980s have emboldened terrorists and others who oppose American interests. To pull out of Iraq without having put down the insurgency once and for all would supposedly be another sign of American weakness.

But our decisions about national security shouldn’t be made based on conjecture about the message that some might perceive. That is particularly true when we know that we are making the insurgency stronger with our indefinite presence in Iraq. The president suggests that if he issues a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, our enemies will think that we are weak. On the contrary: terrorists will not feel particularly emboldened if we put our Iraq policy on track so that we can focus our attention on eliminating them. We know that our commitment of resources—money, troops, time—to Iraq is stretching our military to the breaking point. Without a plan to finish our military mission, our enemies will know that we have fallen into a trap and we can’t figure out how to get out.

When I pressed Secretary Rice on the need for a flexible timetable during an October 19 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, she responded that “We’d like our discussions of withdrawal and of bringing down the numbers of forces to be results-based rather than time-based.” That argument is, of course, a red herring, as is the administration’s criticisms of “arbitrary” timetables.

The timetable I am calling for should be results-based, flexible, and tied to achievable benchmarks, not a deadline or a formula for “cut and run.” Without such a timetable, and without clear, realistic benchmarks, we cannot hold ourselves accountable for meeting our goals, nor can we give our troops and the American people the clarity they deserve about their mission.

It is also important to note that the proposed timeframe should apply to the military mission in Iraq and not to our broader political missions in Iraq. We all understand that our engagement in Iraq won’t end with the redeployment of U.S. troops. We will still have a great deal of tough diplomatic work to do in Iraq well after the bulk of U.S. troops leave, and probably some serious security cooperation to negotiate as well.

We will continue to devote resources to Iraq, without a doubt. But as it stands today, we have focused on Iraq to the exclusion of critically important national-security priorities. And we have done so at great cost to the outstanding men and women of the U.S. military and to their families. When I speak to servicemen and women in Wisconsin and in Iraq, and when I speak to their families, their pride in their service is evident, and it is well earned. But their frustration with this open-ended commitment, with the stopgap orders and the multiple deployments, with the extensions and the uncertainties, is equally evident, and it is painful. We can do better by them, by insisting on clarity, by insisting on accountability, and by assuring them that we have a plan with clear and achievable goals.

We must stop feeding the insurgency in Iraq and focus on the fight against the terrorist networks that threaten the security of the American people. A flexible timetable can make us stronger and our enemies weaker.