PETRAEUSWinMcNamee:Getty

As Obama considers adding yet more troops to the near-decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq cannot muster sufficient political consensus to organize the elections critical to the departure of 120,000 US troops. The Beltway consensus that Iraq has already been a victory was always more about the Beltway than Iraq, and more about sustaining neo-imperial morale rather than confronting reality. The Beltway doesn't do reality very well. They prefer Palin and "bending the cost curve" and "exit-ramps" and "optics".

So let's confront reality and remember exactly what the Iraq "surge" was designed to achieve when it was launched in 2007. It was designed to create a security environment in which a new Iraqi political settlement could be hammered out between the various sectarian factions. On this critical test, the surge did prevent more chaos and disintegration, largely because of a well-exploited spontaneous shift in the loyalty of several Sunni tribes. But the vital - indeed central -  task of ensuring that the minority Sunnis have a real stake in the new Iraq (central because it's the core guarantee that a civil sectarian war won't break out again) has not been accomplished.

In fact, recent events suggest a move backwards as the entropy of the Arab and Muslim world reasserts itself. Sectarian violence is up. Little integration of Sunnis in the largely Shiite "national" military has occurred. Core questions of Sunni representation and central issues of territory - such as the Kurdish-Arab fight over Kirkuk - remain unresolved. Lawmakers who told the Americans they were past sectarianism are stoking it again:

Mr. Hashimi, a Sunni who told me not long ago that Iraq was now ready for historic reconciliation, was widely accused of acting in a purely sectarian way to ensure more votes for his bloc. The Parliament’s Shiite and Kurdish blocs promptly joined forces in last week’s session and, despite intense American lobbying, passed yet another election law that would reduce Sunni seats even more.

To summarize the NYT today:

Adopting legislation to knit the country together; reforming the Constitution; strengthening independent security forces; reconciling Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds all were benchmarks, and all remain partly or wholly unmet, despite the security gains that were supposed to create the space for political progress and thus peace. Instead, Iraqis treat their Constitution like the benchmarks the way they treat what few traffic lights operate here.

“So what?” a Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman, said when asked about the risk of holding the election later than the Constitution demands. “Nothing in Iraq is very legitimate.”

All the surge did was provide a face-saving way for the US to create enough temporary security to leave. Given the chaos of the first four years of occupation, this was an achievement. But the achievement was in preventing total humiliation for the US, not anything close to victory or success stable enough to leave with anything but another civil war as the likeliest outcome. But the US didn't leave, Obama took the neocon advice, and is still hanging on to the notion that a stable, democratic, self-governing Iraq is possible after only six years of occupation, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, 5,000 dead Americans, countless wounded and disabled vets, and up to $3 trillion in taxpayers' money.

As Obama appears to be intensifying the lost war in Afghanistan, with the same benchmark rubric that meant next-to-nothing in the end in Iraq, he does not seem to understand that he will either have to withdraw US troops from Iraq as it slides into new chaos, or he will have to keep the troops there for ever, as the neocons always intended. Or he will have to finance and run two hot wars simultaneously. If he ramps up Afghanistan and delays Iraq withdrawal, he will lose his base. If he does the full metal neocon as he is being urged to, he should not be deluded in believing the GOP will in any way support him. They will oppose him every step of every initiative. They will call him incompetent if Afghanistan deteriorates, they will call him a terrorist-lover if he withdraws, they will call him a traitor if he does not do everything they want, and they will eventually turn on him and demand withdrawal, just as they did in the Balkans with Clinton. Obama's middle way, I fear, is deeper and deeper into a trap, and the abandonment of a historic opportunity to get out.

I pray I'm wrong. Maybe Iraq will teeter away from a second implosion. Maybe the Af-Pak strategy is credible in a way Iraq's surge never was. We have yet to hear the president's explanation and we would do well to ponder his proposal as thoroughly as he has.

But I fear Bush's wars will destroy Obama as they destroyed Bush. Because they are unwinnable; and because the US is bankrupt; and because neither Iraq nor Afghanistan will ever be normal functioning societies in our lifetimes.

You want empire? Then say so and get on with it - with far more forces, and massive cuts in domestic spending to rebuild thankless Muslim population centers thousands of miles from home for decades into the future.

You do not want empire? Then leave.

Those are the presidential level choices.

And neither Bush nor, it seems, Obama has the strength to make them.