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Last week, while I was sleeping, Charles Krauthammer cited Anthony Cordesman's latest report on Iraq as evidence that the war in Iraq was finally going well. McCain has also made this point. But actually reading Cordesman, you sure don't get that impression. Cordesman loves the surge. He thinks it's been a triumph of violence-suppression, and his data are as solid as we are likely to get (although, as he admits, sectarian violence and cleansing continue beneath the casualty headlines). But Cordesman understands - and is admirably candid about - what remains to be done. We need roughly the same amount of troops we have now through at least the next presidency, and probably through 2016 or even 2020. We need to be spending money in the country consistently for the next decade. Here's his poignant to-do list, now we have only 2005 levels of mayhem:

Consolidate gains against Al Qa’ida in Mesopotamia.

Move towards stable accommodation: Change de-Baathification law, provincial powers act and elections, oil law, etc.

Keep Shi’ite militias (Sadr forces) under control, and  prevent more sectarian  and ethnic cleansing in greater Baghdad area.

Consolidate creation of tribal militias, ensure they get proper central government support, and that central government recognizes importance of Sunni Sheiks.

Stabilize provinces that still have serious conflict - Ninewa, Salah ad Din, Diyala - and prevent Al  Qa’ida in Mesopotamia forces from moving north.

Avoid major intra-Shi’ite power struggles and conflicts in south. Limit turmoil and Iranian influence in Basra and south.

Limit Kurd, Arab, minority fighting in North.

Resolve the “federalism” issue through peaceful referendums.

Develop truly capable Iraqi Army and regular forces to phase US role down to overwatch.

Find solution to failure to develop effective approach to police force, and to  dealing with local security forces, militias, and Facilities Protection Force.

Establish effective local criminal justice system and local, provincial and national government presence.

That's all. Yes: almost everything remains to be done. Note also the Bush-like tendency to reduce the most intractable questions - questions that have never, ever been resolved in centuries - to simple topic sentences, as if writing these goals on a piece of paper makes them any less delusional. "Resolve the 'federalism' issue through peaceful referendums." Okay. "Develop truly capable Iraqi Army." No problem. "Limit Iranian influence." Damn, we forgot about that. Should we make a call?

Cordesman calls, euphemistically, for "strategic patience." What he means by that is the placement of at least 100,000 US troops, and probably more, at least for another five years, and almost certainly another ten. McCain seems to argue that this is no problem. It's not the occupation, he argues; it's the casualties.

If casualties go below a certain point, he will decide that this "war" is now something else. On a date certain it will "soon be over," whatever that means. But if McCain thinks that Western troops in the Muslim Arab heartland are not going to be shot at or fought or resented in ways we Westerners do not begin to understand for ever, or if he thinks that they will function as the kind of token symbolic force that exists in Germany or Japan or South Korea, he is - how to put this politely? - out of his mind.

If McCain is going to give us straight talk - one thing the Bush administration has been completely unable to do -  and believes that Iraq should remain a permanently integrated part of a new, expanding American protectorate in the Middle East, then he needs to say so. He needs to be honest about what his goal of turning Iraq into a stable, non-despotic, unified country, permanently occupied by US troops, requires. It will require trillions of dollars, a bare minimum of another decade of occupation, over 100,000 troops (probably more) committed indefinitely, and no lee-way to tackle any major security threats anywhere else on the planet including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, without a draft. Oh, and then there's a need to maintain US public support for the Sisyphean task of nation-building a place where there is no nation, in a place a long way away, where our reward for such an effort will be fathomless contempt and hatred.

McCain says we all want to leave Iraq. But some obviously don't. It is increasingly clear that the point of the surge and the occupation is to stay in Iraq for ever. Do we want that? Is it in the West's interest? Maybe, after all these years, we can have some minimal honesty in this debate. According to Cordesman, no progress is possible without maintaining the same level of troops of the past five years for the next five years. And we have no guarantee that anything will be saner then. That's the decision Americans need to make clearly, candidly, honestly, for the first time in this war. That's what this election is about. Let's put the choice on the table and collectively decide now - for empire or retreat. We won't get an opportunity like this again. 

Everything else is either a pious hope or a serious lie.

(Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty.)

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