In the Wake of Petraeus

So the High Occasion of the Petraeus Report has come and gone, and it already seems clear that its most significant impact will have been to add production value to the political theatrics around the war debate here at home.

The president Addressed The Nation In Prime Time: "Realizing this vision will be difficult, but it is achievable," he insisted. "Our military commanders believe we can succeed. Our diplomats believe we can succeed. And for the safety of future generations of Americans, we must succeed."

The Democrats Responded: "We have put forth a plan to responsibly and rapidly begin a reduction of our troops. Our proposal can not erase the mistakes of the last four and a half years, but we can chart a better way forward," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the official Democratic responder.

The president remains optimistic about the surge, Democrats declared it a complete failure and everyone accused the Iraqi government of falling down on the job. Praise was heaped on the "brave" Americans fighting and dying in the Mesopotamian desert.

Drum roll.

The political combat at home will resume next week when Congress returns to consideration of the Department of Defense authorization bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed this week to dismiss the idea of compromise legislation that would give the president and his Republican supporters an out by not insisting on a definitive end date for U.S. troop withdrawal. "We are going to continue to be as aggressive as we have been," he said in response to a question that tried to goad him into acknowledging that Democrats were willing to cut a deal.

As always, the president is showing no acknowledgement of the disaster Iraq has become. There emerges from the Petraeus report a stark and saddening truth, maybe the central truth: The Iraq war, judged by the number of American troops engaged at the front, will look next spring the same as it did last spring -- more than 130,000 American troops on the ground trying to advance the noble mission of creating "breathing room" for Iraqis to construct some kind of human infrastructure that will allow them to live together in peace.

That is the cause for which, last week, 21-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Lance Phillips of Cookeville, Tennessee, gave his life. The Defense Department confirmed his death on Tuesday, along with those of Army Corporal Javier Parades, 24 of San Antonio, Texas, and 19-year-old Private First Class Sammie Phillips, of the Kentucky National Guard.

What did not emerge from the Petraeus report -- nor from all that has followed -- is how the war is won or how it ends. The president likes to remind us that we are in an epic struggle against global, freedom-hating terrorists. But in Iraq this Great War has rather puny aims -- to create "breathing room for political reconciliation." However, political parties that would like reconciliation is a prerequisite, which is definitively not the case in Iraq. It's hard for me to see how an American presence in Iraq for another three, or five, or ten years changes that fundamental dynamic.

As an aside, one reason the debate over the war in Iraq is so difficult in its current incarnation is because a central, critical point -- that Iraq was a mistake in the first place -- is no longer admissible in the discussion about how to move forward and how to get out.

For those who have always opposed the war, to assert it now does little to advance the discussion. (Ask Barack Obama) For those who supported it, admitting such a mistake only further damages their credibility. So no one budges and the status is quo.

Still, what will change is the political undergirding of the war. The increasing unpopularity of the Democratic Congress and the infamous MoveOn Petraeus/Betray Us ad of this week are the signs of a deep frustration among opponents of the war. It springs from an abiding belief among many voters that the war in Iraq was nearing its end when Democrats won control of the Congress last fall: American elections have consequences, they surmised. All the subsequent debate about why the war did not end -- the Senate's 60-vote rule to "invoke cloture" and "break filibusters" -- sounds just like what it is: blah, blah, blah.

But in the end, those true believers may turn out to be right. Elections do have consequences, but the key election may not be the midterms of 2006, which brought nine new Democrats to the Senate, but the 2008 congressional elections that will see Republicans defending 22 senate seats under tough conditions, while Democrats must protect only 12.

Some of the toughest questioning of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker came from the most endangered Republicans on the 2008 ballot -- Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Each is expected to face a tough re-election race next year. This is where Democrats will get the votes the end the war when the time comes.

"Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel," Coleman said pleading during their testimony on Tuesday. Democrats say they are perfectly happy to go back to the voters in 2008 and plead for even more Democratic senators to end the war.

It's a risky proposition because, unlike 2006, Democrats now control large portions of Congress.

But for GOP candidates in 2008, 130,000 American troops in Iraq next summer could only mean bad news: The lights at the end of the tunnel may be those of a political freight train bearing down on them.