John McCain continues to talk about a U.S. "victory"- in Iraq and Sarah Palin baits Barack Obama for not using the word "win"- when he discusses the war. But the hard reality facing whoever becomes President is a looming strategic defeat.
The shape of that defeat is outlined in the Oct. 13 draft of the "status-of-forces"- agreement negotiated between Washington and Baghdad in which the United States accepts a full withdrawal of its combat troops by the end of 2011, or earlier if the Iraqi government demands.
Over the past several months as the agreement has taken shape, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has escalated its demands, and the Bush administration has made concession after concession. Yet even now, many powerful Iraqi politicians -- especially among the Shiites -- are demanding that American troops get out even faster.
Iraq seems intent on telling the United States the diplomatic equivalent of "don't let the door hit you on the way out."-
If that's the case, the United States may end up achieving almost none of its core geopolitical objectives despite the deaths of more than 4,000 soldiers, the maiming of more than 30,000 others, and the expenditure of $1 trillion or more in taxpayer dollars.
Though President George W. Bush sold the war to the American people as needed to protect the nation from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, it turned out that Hussein had no WMD stockpiles and presented no genuine threat to the United States.
The war's real motives "" dear to the hearts of neoconservatives close to Bush "" were to project American power into the Middle East, establish military bases for pressuring Iran and Syria on regime change, create a puppet Iraqi government friendly to Israel, and secure U.S. access to Iraqi oil.
The neocons, many of whom cut their foreign-policy teeth on the Reagan administration's hard-line strategies in Central America, saw Iraq as a Middle East version of Honduras, which in the 1980s was used as a base to launch military strikes against Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua and other leftist movements in the region.
Viewing the Central American outcome as a success "" despite the horrendous death toll "" key neocons, such as current deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, sought to apply those lessons to the Middle East with Iraq playing the role of Honduras.
So, after the relatively easy U.S. conquest of Iraq in spring 2003, a joke within neocon circles of Washington was whether to strike next at Syria or Iran, with the punch-line: "Real men go to Teheran."-
These realpolitik motives were rarely mentioned publicly, but this neocon dream of the United States achieving military dominion over the Middle East was always at the center of the Bush administration's thinking. It was in line with the grandiose ambitions of the Project for the New American Century.
Yet, when the American people weren't being told the scary fictions about Hussein attacking with his imaginary WMD, they were hearing President Bush's noble talk about protecting human rights and spreading democracy.
But that was mostly window-dressing, too. In reality, there has been little progress on democracy or human rights in key U.S. allies in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the Persian Gulf sheikdoms.
When limited experiments in democracy were tried, they almost invariably backfired, partly because Bush is widely despised in the region. U.S.-supported Palestinian elections brought radical Hamas to power in Gaza, while the Iraqi elections deepened sectarian schisms and exacerbated the violence in 2005 and 2006.
The latest irony is that Bush's desire to use the status-of-forces agreement to cement a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq "" essentially to lock in the next occupant of the White House "" has had the opposite result.