US presidential hopefuls Barak Obama and his GOP (Republican) rival John McCain are still each trying to get the clinch hold over the other in relation to foreign policy and Iraq. The odd thing is though that it seems likely that neither will be able to deliver the Coup de Grace over this issue. Why?
Well the fact is that whether you supported the war or not, whether you supported the surge or not, whether we are left, centre or right, our interests lie in seeing a constructive end to this traumatic episode for the Iraqi people.
Arguments that still rage over the rightness or wrongness of the war, its legality or otherwise, will continue for years. It is currently popular to view the war as wrong and an error. The bare facts though are that the US deposed a dictator by invasion. They then let the occupied country slip from their control; for which Rumsfeld, who forced the US military to scale back early troop commitments, should be hung. The consequence was to let ethnic, sectarian and tribal tensions boil in a country which then had no national government and where Iraq's own army and police force had been swept away.
Belatedly the US government took its post invasion responsibility to Iraq more seriously, but not until the country had become so lawless that the Sunni group Al Qaeda had found a sweet home there for its poisonous brand of terroristic Islamo-fascism. A series of terrorist bombs and murders pushed a country already in turmoil to the verge of a Sunni-Shia civil war.
When the surge was proposed most anti-war commentators, inluding Obama, said it would not work. Get the troops out now was their cry.
Whatever the arguments about the war, on this they were wrong. The levels of violence in the country have reduced significantly and there have been some signs of internal political progress.
This has brought about a situation where the next US president will be the one who ends the occupation, be he a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever of these candidates is elected there is an inevitability that the occupation is in its last phases.
Barak Obama grudgingly accepts that the surge has worked but claims that even knowing this he doesn't think he was wrong to oppose it. A strange position. Equally strange is the sight of John McCain failing to make any impression on his opponent on this issue.
Obama as he clarified his position talks about a 16 month withdrawal. Bush meanwhile talks of "time horizons".
Success in Iraq now means trying to leave a country which is as stable as possible, which has democratic processes and where local forces of order , Army and police, are able to maintain security. It means Iraq becoming a country which is able to start using its oil wealth to support its own development.
This will not happen under endless occupation and so the occupation, sooner or later, must end. The improved and hopefully improving security situation provides a window of opportunity for managing a successful exit which must not be wasted. In that sense we have an outer limit for the "time horizon". Any unduly extended continuation of the occupation will risk strengthening any arguments for insurgency.
Equally, precipitous withdrawals from countries which are not under local control risks descent into anarchy and civil war.
The forces of instability, Sunni terrorists, gangster elements and Shia militias would only benefit from precipitous withdrawal. At the same time the compromises necessary for political reconciliation in Iraq will only come through the pressure of an impending end to occupation. The national Iraqi government will gain from the earliest withdraw timetable but only if it is consistent with it having real control of the country at the time of the exit.
So any withdrawal must be neither too far away nor too soon given the current state of events.
So both candidates are bit right and a bit wrong on Iraq. The reality is that the next US president, if he wants to manage to success, will have to manage an exit which begins no earlier than around 12 months from now and which is substantially concluded no more than than say 24 months from now.
Obama may have plucked his original 16 month figure from out of thin air but he landed lucky and finds himself within the time window for managing exit to success, albeit very much at the nearer end of it. McCain faces the same impetus of events but, concerned about the risks of public promises of specific dates, chooses to be non-specific about a time frame.
Obama's "16 month exit" policy is a very risky one, but remaining vague about exit intentions is not an option at this point either. The end of the occupation of Iraq must come and the next President must manage it.
Both candidates are right and wrong in equal measure. Obama was wrong about the surge but right that the present improvements must be given impetus. He lands lucky with his 16mths because the pace of improvement is such that conditions might, just might , be conducive to successful exit at that point. Hopefully the man, in office, would be flexible enough to adjust his date commitment in the light of actual events, if necessary.
McCain was undoubtedly right in his support for the surge. He was right earlier to be cautious about giving specific withdrawal dates. But the success of the very policy that McCain supported and that Obama opposed gives an impetus to the Iraq affair which means that talk of dates and time horizons for exit is unavoidable. This plays into Obama's current position. Obama though remains unable to fully capitalise on this because of his ill-judgment over the surge.
So the candidates will continue to toss and turn on the Iraq war issue and the management of the US exit but neither looks likely to make the other cry "uncle" over Iraq.