In a series of conference calls today, surrogates for Barack Obama and John McCain are once again sparring about Iraq, making largely the same arguments they were making a month ago. To the initiated, the debates are wrote and repetitive; to the voting public, the debates are less about Iraq than they are about the judgment of history, the projection of American self-esteem, the presidency of George W. Bush and the human cost of the war, right or wrong. The election will swing on these hinges. The arguments also contained embedded assumptions about the answers to at least six different questions.

The trade-off between a stable Iraq and a defeated Taliban.

The Surge has made Iraq safer and marginally improved the legitimacy of Nuri Al-Maliki’s political coalition. Sectarian violence has dropped dramatically despite Barack Obama’s belief that it would worsen.

The size and duties of Obama’s residual force – 10,000? 30,000? 80,000? Corollary: what permanent basing rights would Iraq agree to?

What we don’t know: whether rapid withdrawals will erase the security gains (thus proving them ephemeral without a long-term U.S presence); McCain says undoubtedly; Obama is willing to take the risk.

The locus of the fight against terrorist networks and shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The central mission of U.S. troops in Iraq right now is security containment and indigenous force training. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is weak. What we don’t know: whether AlQ in M will re-emerge as U.S. troops leave; whether Al Q in M is more of a threat than various semi-networked terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan; McCain believes that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror; Obama believes it’s in Afghanistan; McCain worries much more about the potential for a propaganda victory for AL Q if the U.S. withdraws.

The potential for a second civil war

This one even more bloody and intractable than the first, between Sunni and Shia, with Saudi Arabia and Iran fomenting the violence and providing financial and materiel sustenance to the combatants. What we don’t know: whether a civil war is inevitable; whether the decline in violence has allowed sectarian tensions to ease; whether geographic desegregation is enough of a bulwark against conflict, etc.

The balance of power in the Gulf; Saudi interests vis-à-vis an empowered and nuclear-armed Iran.
And the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The logistical difficulties of removing troops as quickly as Obama wants to.

Accoridng to ABC News, current ground commanders don't seem to think that it is feasible without incurring grievous loss of life; Obama's advisers think differently.

As U.S. troops withdraw, who looks out for the political interests of Iraq's Sunnis? Who keeps the Shia militias in check?

The US? Saudi Arabia? The UN? Do we have any responsibility to the Sunnis?

When does our collective moral responsibility to the Iraqi people end?


Does that responsibility require us to act in ways contrary to our national interests? How much should we atone for the sins of the past? Were they sins in the first place?

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