There is always much about the future that is obscure, but of one thing we can be reasonably certain: In 2008, the United States will be involved militarily in Iraq. It may be a largely peaceful involvement, centering on the military occupation of key areas, or it may have a major combat component, depending on the enemy's capability and intentions, but that America will be there, there is no doubt at all.
The occasional politician demanding prompt and total withdrawal from Iraq is simply fantasizing, and the Democrats know this, as well as the Republicans. Such a withdrawal would merely turn the whole region over to other nations and forces with their own fish to fry. Middle Eastern oil, which the United States itself could do without, is absolutely vital to our allies in Europe and elsewhere. For it to fall into the hands of Russia, or some consortium of regional powers, would alter the whole balance of global power overnight.
Similar considerations will dominate America's Middle Eastern policies not only in 2008 but thereafter -- and quite regardless of whether (as seems likely) the Democrats take over the White House in 2009. A Democratic president would undoubtedly make a bigger display of deference to our allies, and perhaps modify this or that aspect of U.S. policy in the Mideast, but he or she would know very well that a U.S. presence in the Middle East is an indispensable factor in the diplomatic picture there.
What is harder to assess is whether U.S. involvement will continue to have a major military component. In 2008, the war there may well be winding down. Al Qaeda no longer has (if it ever had) the capability to be a centrally directed and militarily effective force. It may still occupy individual towns, and put to death hundreds or even thousands of civilian Iraqis. But U.S. forces effectively dominate the country, and will continue to do so.
Beyond 2008, however, the United States must make a major effort to shift the battle more decisively into a political context. As the military weakness of Al Qaeda becomes more apparent, the politicians in Baghdad must be pressed even more strongly to come to political terms among themselves. This has been said before, but the urgency increases daily.
A politician with disposable influence is important only as long as he retains the power to exert it. Once he commits himself to a policy, his relevance is automatically reduced. There is, therefore, on the part of Iraqi politicians a powerful inducement to remain uncommitted, on any subject, for as long as possible. This is natural enough, but must be recognized and resisted as strongly as Washington can manage. Only a political consensus in Iraq will create an atmosphere in which military success can be transformed into political tranquility.
So the odds are that we are in for a prolonged period of political bargaining among the Iraqis, with each faction trying to advantage itself in the distribution of the country's assets -- notably including oil. Well, there are worse things than political bargaining -- especially warfare. And if the United States can continue, in 2008, the gradual wind-down of military operations that we have seen in 2007, we will be able to count the year as a success.
Politically, the Democrats have long since abandoned their earlier position, so neatly summarized last spring by Senator majority leader Harry Reid as, "The war is lost." They know better now, and their rhetoric reflects it. They will continue to condemn it, but will not demand that it be ended -- or end it themselves, if it comes to that.
The Republicans, conversely, have dodged the worst bullet -- responsibility for a lost war. The military campaign in Iraq continues, as one indispensable part of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But the American people have never fully reconciled themselves to our involvement in Iraq, and the Republican party must shoulder responsibility for it.