On Capitol Hill, there is near agreement on at least one aspect of Iraq policy: the Iraqis themselves need to shoulder more of the burden of stabilizing their country. But this consensus breaks down over the obvious follow-up question. How?
Many Democrats, newly emboldened by their election victories, favor an approach that might be labeled "tough love." It goes something like this: If the US plans a phased pullout of troops within four to six months, the Iraqi government will face up to what has to be done.
"This is not precipitous; it is a responsible way to change the dynamic in Iraq," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, soon to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a Wednesday hearing.
But the White House – and the top generals of the US military – favor a strategy that they consider more nurturing. The US needs to intensify efforts to train the Iraqi armed forces to fight for themselves, according to Gen. John Abizaid, US commander in the Middle East. A scheduled US pullout might simply cause Iraq's sectarian factions to prepare for chaos to come.
The gap between these approaches suggests that despite the recent shift in US politics, in Washington there are heated debates over Iraq yet to come.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that the Iraqis must win this battle with our help," General Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democrats don't ascend to control of the House and Senate until next year. But the promise of future power can lead to assertiveness in the present, and this week, with Congress back in session, Democrats were not shy about pressing their case for a change in strategy in Iraq.
Both the Senate and House armed services panels held full-dress hearings on Iraq Wednesday, the first such inquiries in months. At both, the established fault lines between party members, and among them, were on full display.
Senator Levin for instance, a Democratic party elder on military policy, kept pressing the idea of a phased pull-out, despite General Abizaid's objections. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a likely front-runner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, waved about his proposal: an increase in troops of at least 20,000 to help bring stability to Baghdad.
Not that General Abizaid liked Senator McCain's ideas any better than those of Senator Levin.
Such an increase in US strength would have a very negative effect on public opinion in Iraq, noted Abizaid. And he questioned whether the US military was large enough overall to commit to a larger force in Iraq.
"When you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps," said Abizaid.
And in a remarkably sharp comment about the political atmosphere in Washington, the top US military commander in the Middle East commented that some aspects of the search for alternative strategies seemed to him unseemly.
When I come to Washington, I feel despair [here]," Abizaid told the Senate panel. "When I'm in Iraq with my commanders, when I talk to our soldiers, when I talk to the Iraqi leadership, they are not despairing," General Abizaid insisted.
That said, comments this week from other US officials suggests that the intelligence community, at least, takes a dark view of the current Iraqi situation.
Iraqi insurgent attacks against US and coalition forces have increased from about 70 per month in January to 180 in October, according to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples. The rate of attacks on Iraqi civilians has increased fourfold over that same period of time.
"The perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear and hardening sectarianism, which is empowering militias and vigilante groups and reducing confidence in government and security forces," General Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was no more sunny.
"We're now face to face with whole societies that are in profound, and, frankly, volatile transitions, and whose fate will directly affect ... the security of the United States," said General Hayden.
Given this situation, the newly empowered Democrats face a difficult political and substantive situation, says Loren Thompson, a defense expert and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington.
If they force a redeployment of US troops, they may get blamed for any resulting violence in Iraq. Yet if they don't force a redeployment of US troops, when 2008 rolls around they and their candidates will have partial ownership of whatever the US situation in Iraq is at that time.
Sen. Levin and his cohorts are right in at least pressing the US military leadership for some sort of figures in regard to how long continued training of Iraq forces might take.
Otherwise the training mission "becomes an open-ended justification for sticking around," says Thompson.