WASHINGTON — No, it’s not your imagination: The “debate” about Iraq, and I use the word loosely, becomes ever more surreal as the occupation drags on.

I don’t blame Gen. David Petraeus or Ambassador Ryan Crocker for their stay-the-course recommendation this week on Capitol Hill. Generals and diplomats should do what our elected leaders tell them to do — having covered South America, I can attest that the alternative is not pretty — and George W. Bush is indeed the Decider when it comes to Iraq policy. For now, at least.

Of course, Bush long ago lost any credibility with Congress and the American people on Iraq. It’s understandable that he hides behind Petraeus’ breastplate of medals and Crocker’s thatch of gray hair, sending these loyal and able public servants to explicate the inexplicable: What realistic goal is the United States trying to achieve in Iraq? And in what parallel universe is this open-ended occupation making our nation safer?

Even the most basic question of any war is undefined: Who is the enemy? It was almost painful listening to Petraeus as he faced reporters Thursday and was asked whether Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army were friend or foe. His tortured answer, translated into English, was yes.

In 2003, when Bush launched this elective war, the enemy was Saddam Hussein’s wack-job regime. The dictator and his minions were quickly defeated, but then U.S. forces faced two new enemies — al-Qaida in Iraq (which we created by invading the country and destroying its brutal government) and a popular insurgency based in the country’s Sunni minority (ditto).

Having midwifed these monsters, the Decider told us we had to stay in Iraq to slay them. What actually happened was that Sunni tribal leaders, many of whom were participants in the anti-American insurgency, decided they had had enough of the al-Qaida fighters’ Taliban-like ways — and also saw that they were in danger of being completely marginalized by the Shiite majority. This so-called Awakening began before Bush’s troop escalation, which was artfully labeled a “surge.” It’s not going out on a limb to predict that the Awakening will last precisely as long as the Awakened believe it is in their interest.

Some al-Qaida combatants remain, however, and the insurgency is not totally quiescent. Meanwhile, the struggle among armed Shiite factions for power and wealth has intensified. It’s a messy situation, to be sure, but there’s no way to call it a “war” anymore. Our presence in Iraq is an occupation, pure and simple. As in any occupation, the “enemy” consists of people who don’t want the occupying troops in their country — and also people who do want the occupying troops in their country, as long as they see some political advantage.

It was Petraeus who, during the invasion, looked around at the chaos and said, rhetorically: “Tell me how this ends.”

That was the question on Capitol Hill this week, but neither Petraeus nor Crocker could provide an answer.

Both Democratic presidential candidates made valiant attempts to engage the officials in a reality-based dialogue. Hillary Clinton pressed Crocker on the long-term agreements being negotiated between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, and interrogated Petraeus on whether U.S. forces are now expanding their area of responsibility to include the southern city of Basra, which had been Britain’s problem. Both men responded with mush.

Barack Obama conducted a polite but precise cross-examination, the aim of which was to get Crocker or Petraeus or somebody to define what an acceptable Iraq would look like. If violence were at current levels but without a large presence of U.S. troops, would that be good enough? He got another plate of mush.

Here’s something solid: Early last year, before the surge, there were 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. In November, when Americans choose the next president, there are likely to be 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The White House will blow a lot of smoke about how there’s a “pause in the drawdown” or some such nonsense. There’s no troop reduction; there’s been an increase.

No one should be surprised that Petraeus and Crocker asked our elected representatives for more time. That’s what George Bush always wanted, and he wasn’t about to be deterred by anything so inconsequential as the clearly expressed will of the American people. As Dick Cheney said of anti-war opinion polls: “So?”

It’s time to acknowledge that Bush has run out the clock. The nation’s only recourse is the ballot box.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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