In a bunch of conversations - all casual, random, varied - with fellow journalists in Washington this past week, I'm struck when the talk moves to Iraq by one thing. I know no one who believes that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will actually remove any troops from Iraq beyond those that might conceivably be removed by John McCain. For those of you who believe that your vote in this primary season means anything, this might be worth passing along. Withdrawal in any meaningful way is off the table, as far as Washington is concerned. And when I have raised the serious possibility that this should happen, I am greeted with That Unserious Look.

Now, there are obvious pragmatic, short term arguments for staying with 150,000 troops or so in Iraq for the next ten years. There are also very powerful strategic, economic and moral arguments for getting out as fast as we can. But what troubles me is that these arguments are not really relevant. The Washington elites have already decided. It's unthinkable for the US to leave Iraq at any point in the foreseeable future. This, as Greenwald would say, is the Serious Position. You can challenge it in the campaign or on the blogs, but no one actually believes anyone will actually do this. They're humoring us.

And the primary candidate for maintaining the occupation indefinitely on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton. As for Obama, I disagree with my fellow hacks. He will be in a very tough spot if he becomes president. But he will be able to leverage a unique movement in the country and a uniquely powerful honeymoon in world opinion with a uniquely potent rhetorical skill to at least attempt an exit from the quicksand of the Middle East occupation. He has a chance to shift the paradigm. The Clintons, to put it bluntly, will not. And Clinton will swiftly realize that the most potent antidote to conservative criticism of her at home will be buttressing her military image, working the Thatcher thing, constructing an Iron Lady persona that will both appeal to her white ethnic base and keep the Republicans at bay. She will no more withdraw troops from Iraq than John McCain will. Anything that could make her look weak - and it's Hannity and O'Reilly to whom she will defer in this perception game - she will resist. She has so little raw political talent and so few rhetorical skills she will be a captive of polls and caution and, as always, self-preservation. Bush knows this, which is why he is so keen to prevent Obama from changing the Beltway consensus and to preserve his own legacy. In some ways, a return to the Clintons, his fellow dynasts, as long as they legitimize and extend his new empire, is what he really wants.

There are four candidates  still left in this race: Clinton, Clinton, McCain, and Obama. The first two are a seamless team. Only one has a small chance of extricating the US from a lifetime of occupation of the Middle East. It's Obama. 


(Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty.)

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