During the Senate Armed Services hearing today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. on whether the July 2011 date for beginning to withdrawal troops is "locked in."
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gates seemed to suggest there was some flexibility, that "it was a clear statement of his strong intent" and that "the president always has the freedom to re-evaluate his decisions." After the hearing Graham said he took that to mean the date is "not locked in" and will depend on conditions on the ground.
It was a point of contention at the White House briefing today – I asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs if senators were incorrect calling the date a "target."
After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.
Lindsey Graham will not be happy. Neither will John McCain – and a whole lot of other Republicans who believe any kind of time line means "advantage: enemy."
Keep in mind that the PACE of the withdrawal will still depend on conditions on the ground – which means it could be a very small number of troops if things are not going well.
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Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent.