While it may have been eclipsed by the economy, Iraq is almost certain to remain a top issue in the presidential campaign – though perhaps in a different way than anticipated just a few months ago.
Until recently, the debate over Iraq was framed in simple terms: withdraw or not? Democrats were essentially on one side, and the Republicans on the other.
But now a sustained reduction in violence, as well as still-fledgling but gathering signs of Iraqi political progress, is adding up to a new focus for the Iraq debate. The question, some experts say, is now less one of whether the United States will remain in Iraq under the next president, and more what kind and size of presence it will be over the course of the next presidency.
"There is no one who is planning today to have either [the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan] won before the end of the next presidency," says Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
That does not mean the US effort is destined to remain at current troop or combat levels, adds Mr. Cordesman. But it could mean that what he calls "unrealistic" talk of rapid withdrawal will be replaced with discussion of such complex issues as advisory and training efforts and development and governance aid.
The candidates' positions
Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a firm supporter of the war and has received flak from Democratic candidate Barack Obama for suggesting that Iraq could see the kind of sustained US involvement that continues in Germany and Japan more than a half century after World War II.
Both Senator Obama and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speak in terms of a quick withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. Yet both also leave the door open to continuing to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq and to pursuing other goals such as training Iraqi security forces.
Discounting political rhetoric, Cordesman – who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Iraq and Afghanistan – says a crucial determining factor for Iraq will be the quality of the transition from the Bush presidency to the next. "It will be absolutely critical to have a smooth transfer of plans, resources, command, and action from the current presidency to the next presidency," he says. "If that falters or is inadequate, it could have … devastating consequences."
The Iraq debate will probably zero in on costs versus benefits. Topping the benefits ledger for war advocates is mounting evidence that Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated forces are on the run and have been denied much of the terrain they had open access to even a few months ago. That's not only a plus for Iraq, but also for the war on terror, advocates say. Critics, however, continue to insist that the real terrorist threat to the US is in Pakistan, which they say has been neglected as a result of the Bush administration's focus on Iraq.
Also on the benefits side is a stable Iraq, which seems to have pulled back from a civil war. The Iraqis are beginning to show signs of political progress, proponents of a sustained US effort say. Earlier this month, the Iraqi parliament passed three pieces of legislation that some experts say suggest a growing willingness by the country's ethnic and political factions to forge hard bargains. The three items were a national budget, an amnesty law expected to affect mostly Sunni detainees, and a law defining provincial powers.
But critics, while acknowledging some progress, say the proof of these latest measures will be in their execution. They add that, after passing the three laws under considerable duress, the parliament adjourned for a five-week respite.
The costs ledger
In a recent talk in Washington, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania outlined what he called the "hidden costs to the war in Iraq." The former marine and first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress focused on the negative impact the five-year-old war is having on the armed forces and on US national security. Everyone knows that nearly 4,000 US troops have died in Iraq, he said, but less discussed is the dire effect on military families of extended and repeat deployments.
The economic costs are less felt because the US is "put[ting] a trillion-dollar war on a credit card and leav[ing] the bills for our children to pay," Representative Murtha said. He noted that the cost of 2-1/2 days in Iraq could restore $800 million that President Bush cut from the federal highway program.
On another level, the Iraq war could be demonstrating to the world the growing limits of US power, says Andrew Bacevich, a foreign-policy expert at Boston University and another Vietnam veteran. The clearest legacy of the troop "surge" in Iraq, he adds, is that it has enabled Mr. Bush to bequeath the war to his successor.
Cordesman of CSIS says his recent trip revealed a number of threats that could spell "defeat" for Iraq, among them: the central government's failure to provide and improve services and to develop a corruption-free and efficient system for transferring funds to the provinces, a lack of jobs for idle young men, a failure to incorporate sectarian populations into the security forces, and continued meddling from Iran in Iraq's affairs.
Cordesman says a defining moment of his recent trip came when an aid worker told him that the US effort would never result in a Western-style democracy and that the best the US could hope for was what the worker called an "Iraqcracy" – a stable and secure government, but one functioning well below the higher concept the Bush administration envisioned.
Between now and November, voters in the presidential race will be deciding if that is enough.