WASHINGTON — Yes, you heard it right: At the Dartmouth College debate Wednesday evening, not one of the three leading Democratic candidates could pledge that all U.S. combat troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his or her first term as president.

That’s the end of a first term. Which would be January 2013. Which would be five and a half years from now.

“It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting,” said Hillary Clinton.

“I think it’s hard to project four years from now,” said Barack Obama.

“I cannot make that commitment,” said John Edwards.

Makes you wonder what kind of Kool-Aid they were serving backstage. Let me suggest that everyone stick to bottled water next time.

In geopolitical terms, I think the answer they all gave is wrong; I think this represents the same kind of old-paradigm thinking about foreign policy and America’s role in the world that all three candidates claim to reject. In just-plain-political terms, I think such temporizing — delivered with furrowed brow and an air of wise gravitas — is, at the very least, unwisely premature. The time for a Democratic candidate to start taking the antiwar vote for granted and scurrying toward an imagined “center” is after securing the nomination, not before. Democratic primary voters are smart enough to recognize the difference between saying you oppose the war and pledging to end it.

I’m also wondering what leads anyone to think that by the time the general election campaign gets under way, anything short of a clear promise to pull the plug on George W. Bush’s debacle will look like a centrist position. By then, “U.S. troops out in a year” may look like the height of caution.

With all due respect to Clinton, we have a pretty good idea of what the next president will inherit. I can’t imagine that at this point anyone thinks Bush — who still thinks he’s a latter-day Churchill — is going to change his mind, or his basic policy in Iraq. We’ll roll into 2008 with a bigger U.S. presence in Iraq than we had at the beginning of 2007, and even if Bush agrees to a series of token withdrawals — necessitated by the fact that we’re running out of soldiers, Marines and guardsmen to send — it’s almost certain that on Election Day we’ll still have well over 100,000 U.S. troops bogged down in the sands of Mesopotamia.

One thing we don’t know is whether Bush will have sought to tie the next president’s hands by ordering some kind of attack on Iran. Yes, that would complicate the situation in Iraq. So why did Clinton vote Wednesday for a Senate resolution encouraging Bush to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization? Having voted to authorize the Iraq war — she says Bush pulled the wool over her eyes — why would she vote for anything that Bush might try to use as justification for yet another potentially catastrophic war?

With all due respect to Obama (who missed the Iran vote), it’s his obligation to “project four years from now.” He opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning; he is familiar with the mess Bush created and, like all the Democratic candidates, he says he will promptly begin to end the war. But four years is a long time — longer than the United States fought in World War II, certainly long enough to bring home the troops. Either Obama sees a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq or not.

With all due respect to Edwards, of course he can make a commitment to have all American troops out of Iraq by 2013 — if he wants to. Of course it’s possible that unforeseen events will intervene. But does his intended course of action entail complete withdrawal, or not?

What we need to hear now from Clinton, Obama and Edwards is “the vision thing,” heavy on specifics. How do they see the long-term U.S. role in the Middle East? (“Different from the way George Bush sees it” isn’t good enough.) Do they buy Bush’s distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” elements and regimes, as proxies for good and evil? Is U.S. involvement in the region about oil? Is it about religion? What do they intend to do with the permanent-looking bases the Bush administration is building in Iraq — including one just five miles from the Iranian border?

And please, no hiding behind “I don’t do hypotheticals.” The Republican candidates’ view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it’s a vision. What’s yours?

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

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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