Donald Lambro

But as the situation deteriorated in Iraq earlier this year, war casualties mounted and the future of the Maliki government seemed bleak, the White House reluctantly warmed to Baker's proposal. Maliki had already entered into talks with the Iranians, discussing border control and security issues. The decision was made that the United States should join these talks, too, to see what came of them.

On Monday, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, sat down together at a meeting arranged by Maliki in his office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. Crocker, a realist who follows Ronald Reagan's Cold War admonition, "Trust but verify," said the two countries stuck to security issues but lowered expectations of any better relations. "Whether that will produce results is up to them," he told reporters.

Perhaps it is too early to say that benchmarks, a larger Iraqi army and negotiations with Iran will lead to a more stabilized situation in Iraq anytime soon. But it is clear the administration has begun a series of shifts in strategic planning it hopes will lay the groundwork for a winding down of our combat role and thus defusing the war as an issue in the 2008 election. For the time being, however, the administration's hopes rest with Gen. David Petraeus and whether he can reduce the violence in Baghdad and maybe elsewhere in Iraq to buy the United States time to change its mission. Petraeus will deliver his report to America this fall when it is hoped that enough progress has been made to give the administration the window of opportunity it now seeks.

"Petraeus doesn't have to produce a victory there, but he does have to show some form of improvement on the ground. The quality of life has to be better, not good but better," said Victor Davis Hanson, a senior military affairs analyst at the Hoover Institution.

Hanson is pessimistic about the possibility of our overcoming the kind of terrorism that can strike anytime, killing hundreds of people, and then disappear into the shadows to plot the next suicide bombing in a crowded mosque or market.

But an expanded Iraqi military, with the financial and arms support of the United States, could conceivably take over the brunt of the fighting and, with the right leadership, kill a lot of al-Qaeda terrorists.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.