With the Congressional elections behind us, and the Baker-Hamilton commission's report published at last, the stage would now seem set for a major national debate on the central question: Should the United States continue to seek "victory" in Iraq (however that is defined), or withdraw its forces from that country and leave it to whatever its fate may be?
President Bush, who (it must always be remembered) still has two more years in office and will continue to be commander in chief of the armed forces, stands firmly for the first option. Various critics, most notably a number of Democratic members of Congress like John Murtha, have adopted what certainly sounds very much like the second. In between stands a huge segment of public and political opinion that actively dislikes the way the war has been prosecuted to date but is certainly not committed to cutting and running. Is there any hope for a compromise?
The trouble is that any compromise will sooner or later favor one or the other of the two polar positions. If the compromise permits the United States to continue to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq and pursue the goal of prevailing there, it will amount to a decision in support of the Bush option. If, on the other hand, it furthers the goal of sooner or later abandoning Iraq, it will constitute a de facto endorsement of the Murtha option.
What are the Democrats, as a whole, willing to accept? Most of them certainly don't want to see the Middle East collapse into chaos, with all that would mean for the United States, Europe, and the world, let alone a future Democratic president. There is likely, therefore, to be considerable debate within the Democratic Party -- quite possibly continuing into the 2008 presidential contest -- over how far to compromise with Bush.
As for the American people, don't believe for a moment that a majority of them favor cutting and running. Their trouble is that they dislike the way things have been going in Iraq for the last three years (and who can blame them?). If this is the best we can do, they seem to be thinking, then it might be better to stop doing it. At the same time, they know very well that our enemies in the Middle East are serious and highly dangerous, and are not likely to stop their jihad against the West, and especially the United States, just because we settle for defeat in Iraq. A majority of the public, therefore, is currently unhappy but undecided.
We are probably, therefore, entering a period in which the real debate will be over whether to adopt "compromise" policies that, in the long run, favor Bush's insistence on "victory," or some alternative closer to the proposals for a withdrawal (however much these may be sugar-coated as demands for "redeployment"). To prevail, Bush will certainly have to come up with some modifications, probably both diplomatic and military, in his strategy; we now know that even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded, in a recent memo, that the current strategy isn't working. But various Democratic leaders, as they struggle to come up with an acceptable alternative, will no doubt favor a spectrum of positions, some much closer to Bush's than others.
As for the American people as a whole, they will probably continue to issue contradictory signals about their desires, and reserve the right to change their minds (without admitting it) if what they support today turns out to be unpalatable tomorrow.
It may well be, therefore, that the debate will grind on until whatever "compromise" measures we adopt have their inevitable effect -- whatever that may be -- on the situation on the ground, and the power to make the ultimate decision, to stay or leave, slips out of our hands. If we can't make up our minds, Fate will make the decision for us.