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Time to get real in Iraq debate

NOW THAT we’ve put a fortnight and more between us and the Petraeus testimony, can we go ahead and have a realistic, honest, come-to-Jesus kind of discussion about Iraq?

I think we can. The “surge” has created that opportunity.

The idea behind Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy was this: Apply enough force in the right places, and you can create a secure space in which a political settlement can be achieved.

The promised measure of security has been achieved. Just as importantly, there is broader acceptance in this country that significant U.S. forces will be staying in Iraq for some time. The consistently implied threat that we might yank our troops out at any moment contributed greatly to insecurity in that nation — encouraging terrorists, and discouraging would-be allies from working with us against the terrorists.

For the moment, that threat is gone. If it wasn’t obvious before, it was certainly on display at a Democratic candidates’ debate at Dartmouth last week. The three candidates most likely to win their party’s presidential nomination moved beyond the fantasy that’s been offered too often to their base — that we could have the troops out of Iraq before George W. Bush leaves the White House. They acknowledged that in fact, we can’t even promise to be out by the time the next president’s first term is up in 2013.

That was a significant step. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have walked a razor’s edge for some time, trying to say things that please the “pull ’em out now!” constituency, while at the same time leaving themselves room to be pragmatic and sensible later on, should they be so fortunate as to find themselves in a general election campaign.

This can sometimes lead to dissonance. For instance, in the debate, Barack Obama repeated confusing assertions he made in an op-ed column in The State, in which he first said “all of our combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the end of next year.” But his very next words were “We will then need to retain some forces to strike at al-Qaida in Iraq.” OK, if all of the combat units are out, what will we “strike at” them with? Boy Scouts? Or will the units used to “strike” be smaller than brigade strength? If so, how effective do we think they’ll be? Isn’t this a return to the “less is more,” minimalist force approach that led to the failures of the thoroughly discredited Donald Rumsfeld? If we’re going to free up “combat brigades” from other, nonspecified tasks, why don’t we send them after al-Qaida too?

But the magic number “2013” provides a measure of clarity. It says, We’re there. We’re going to be there. So what are we going to do now?

The question works both ways. Once Democrats accept that we can’t bug out, they can start getting real about what maintaining a commitment means. One answer was offered last week. The Senate majority took a break from futile, please-the-base gestures long enough to join in a bipartisan resolution supporting the idea of dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions — a proposal long advocated by Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sam Brownback.

But “What next?” applies with equal force to Republicans who backed the “surge” all along: Now that our soldiers have done their job, where’s the political settlement in Baghdad?

Sen. Lindsey Graham surprised some last week when he told TIME magazine that he’s willing to give the Maliki government until Christmas to get its act together, and not much more than that.

What? Is one of the biggest fans of the surge, as “never say die” as anyone, ready to throw in the towel? No. But with the U.S. military having done, and continuing to do, its job, no one can make excuses for an Iraqi government that doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity thus provided.

“The challenges and the problem areas in Iraq are not lost on me as a big fan of the surge,” he told me over the phone Friday. “I’m trying to let people know that when you say the political is not moving at the appropriate pace, I agree with you, and I acknowledge” it.

“I want people to acknowledge the security gains, because they’re real, and quit trying to minimalize them. That’s just not fair.” Nor would it be fair or reasonable, he suggested, for him or anybody else to make excuses for political stalemate.

“I would be the first to say, 90 days from now, if they haven’t delivered anything... regarding the major political reconciliation benchmarks, that it would be clear to me they’ve gone from just being dysfunctional to a failure,” Sen. Graham said.

At that point, “We need to look at a new model: Is it wise to give more money to the same people when it’s clear they don’t know what they’re doing, or are incapable of performing?”

That does not, of course, mean pulling our troops out. It is the continued troop presence that gives us the options we have — and puts the onus on the Iraqi government.

For his part, Sen. Graham was not among the three-fourths of the Senate that endorsed Sen. Biden’s partition. To him, giving in to the idea that Sunni and Shi’a can never live together is as objectionable as endorsing Apartheid as a way of keeping the peace in South Africa.

Others disagree. But the wonderful thing is that we are now disagreeing about a way forward, rather than arguing about how quickly we can back out.

With progress like that, I can actually believe that a political solution can be achieved — in Iraq and, yes, even in Washington.

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