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In trying to understand where we are in Iraq, what our realistic options are and what either candidate really believes, two must-reads jointly present the case for staying in Iraq indefinitely. Dexter Filkins' report from some of the previously most devastated parts of that blighted country is a beautifully nuanced, rich, and persuasive portrait. Reading the piece, you can sense both his immense joy at seeing some kind of normalcy return to places where hell recently resided but also, to his immense credit, an unbending intellectual resistance to false hope and unreasonable expectations. What Filkins reports is what so many others testify to: that the combination of the Sunni Awakening, the effect of widespread ethnic cleansing, the construction of massive walls throughout Iraq and especially in Baghdad, and the resilience and surge of American troops have all managed to keep the vile Jihadists at bay, to win hearts and minds against them, as well as to calm the sectarian tensions that the Jihadists brutally exploited. No one should be anything less than overjoyed that this very-fragile but very-real progress (which I, among many, didn't expect) has taken place.

But as we must be open to good news we must not be blind to deeper realities. The trouble is: the critical rapprochement between the Sunni Awakening and the Shiite government in Baghdad has only happened very superficially or locally, if at all. And the critical disputes between the Kurds and the rest of the country in the north are also unresolved. The Iraqi army, although larger and stronger than before, has not yet become a non-sectarian national entity; it is still overwhelmingly Shiite and understandably suspicious of integrating former al Qaeda murderers into its ranks. There are a few signs of local reconciliation, and some tentative saplings of a post-sectarian future sprouting through the corpses, but the fundamental shift we need - integration of the Awakening into the Iraqi army and provincial elections to move the stagnating political process forward - is not here yet. It is not on the horizon. It may be on the horizon over the horizon. But it may also never come. This is what it means to live history. It means not knowing.

Yes, the US forces have drawn down somewhat, although to nowhere near the levels that anyone could describe as "withdrawal".

And, yes, Petraeus became the commander who might have been able to save this misadventure at the start. But the Petraeus lesson is that we cannot leave a security vacuum; and we do not have the kind of government in Iraq capable of filling it in a non-sectarian way yet. Reading Jeffrey Goldberg's superb profile in the current Atlantic, McCain is clearly committed to keeping US troops at whatever level is necessary to retain this calm permanently. And what that must mean is that unless there is a political breakthrough at the national level, it is unrealistic to believe that McCain will be able to withdraw any serious number of troops in his first term. That is what commitment to "victory" means. We need to be very clear about this. It could very well mean a heavy military presence in Iraq for the rest of our lives.

The difference between McCain and Obama on this, I think, is that Obama wants to see a time when there are no US troops in Iraq (which was the case until 2003)  and this fiasco, like the Vietnamese occupation, can become a part of history. McCain wants the US to stay in Iraq for ever if necessary, in some capacity, as the neo-imperial power devotes its maximum resources to integrating the heart of the Arab-Muslim world into secular modernity. Obama doubts that this can be done and that if it could be done, its price would be worth it; and so his goal is a realist minimizing of the damage, while attempting to reallocate American resources more rationally. McCain simply insists that war can work and occupations can pacify counties never truly pacified in history before if done competently and if backed with enough raw national will.

This, I think, is the core foreign policy difference in this election. I do not think it is an easy one to resolve. As readers know, I started this war believing in John McCain's vision of the future. I would still like to. At least McCain did not deny the incompetence and derangement of the initial occupation strategy. And I do not want to succumb to defeatism any more than I want to engage in denialism. There is a moral responsibility to cope with the chaos we have wrought and the nightmare our departure could mean; but there is also a moral responsibility to the American people not to sacrifice their young and squander what's left of their treasury on a fool's errand. No path is morally pure. And neither offers a clear path to security.

But take a few steps back and see where we are: a deeply divided country with only the most fragile national institutions, held together by exhaustion, oil money, ethnic cleansing and American troops. Currently, I believe that Obama is the one who is seeing the world and US interests more clearly and rationally. Withdrawal is essential; and yet it is currently impossible without serious risk. Staying, however, is another form of risk, the risk of permanent enmeshment in a hell-hole from which there is no ultimate way out. To escape from this trap will require more dexterity and pragmatism than McCain believes in - especially when McCain doesn't view it as a trap at all, but as the final occasion for him to exorcize the ghost of Vietnam.

(Photo: An Iraqi army solider stands guard as Iraqis watch September 10, 2008 in Gazaliyah neighborhood north west of Baghdad, Iraq. By Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty).

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