The latest congressional hearings on Iraq provided more gloomy evidence that we’ll be stuck in the quagmire for a long time, no matter who wins the presidency.

No doubt Sen. John McCain, unabashed believer in the “surge,” would keep us there much longer than either of his Democratic opponents. Asked in January how long we should remain in Iraq, he said, “Maybe a hundred [years]. … We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years. … As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, then it’s fine with me. …”

But Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama weren’t especially comforting when they discussed withdrawal as if it were a process that would take a while.

Clinton said at Wednesday’s Senate hearing she “thinks it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront Americans.”

When it was his turn to speak, Obama called again for “a timetable for withdrawal.” He said that “[n]obody’s asking for a precipitous withdrawal” but there should be pressure on the Iraq government to strengthen itself militarily, politically and fiscally. And there should be “a diplomatic surge that includes Iran.”

They were cautious, seemingly wary of the calm and reasonable-sounding Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker as they tried to find out when the troops would leave. “At what point do we say enough?” asked Obama.

Neither the general nor the ambassador gave a satisfactory answer. Crocker vaguely said, “When Iraq gets to the point that it can forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces … without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then … our presence diminishes markedly. But that’s not where we are now.”

The demeanor of Petraeus and Crocker, each seeming to listen thoughtfully to the questions of Democratic war critics, didn’t give Obama and Clinton much of a target, if they wanted one. In fact, watching the hearings, I wondered if Petraeus or Crocker, particularly Petraeus, would emerge next year in a Clinton or an Obama administration.

That’s a scary thought. But we don’t know what Obama or Clinton, each with a phased withdrawal philosophy, would do on that famous “Day One” when meeting with the Washington insiders, including the joint chiefs and various intelligence and anti-terror experts. In similar circumstances, President John F. Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Certainly, whoever wins will be hard-pressed to figure out a way of pulling out. Professor Juan R.I. Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the situation on his Web site Informed Comment when he said of Petraeus:

“He has done the most responsible job yet seen by an American official in Iraq in trying to end the carnage. He has made bazaars no drive zones to stop the car bombings. He has surrounded city districts with blast walls to keep out insurgents. He has reached out to the Sunnis (though alas the Shiite government has not). He has done what he could, but it hasn’t been enough. There really is little sign of political reconciliation.”

Also gloomy was a report on “Iraq After the Surge: Options and Questions,” by Daniel Serwer and Sam Parker for the United States Institute of Peace, an independent nonpartisan organization established and funded by Congress.

They wrote that while security has improved to “roughly 2005 levels … there is no visible end to the U.S. commitment required to prevent Iraq from spinning out of control and threatening a widening war in the region. …

“The reduced level of violence, still far short of the needs of both Iraqis and Americans, leaves the situation fragile and dependent on the presence of U.S. forces. … Without political progress, the U.S. risks getting bogged down in Iraq for a long time to come, with serious consequences for its interests in other parts of the world.”

Even “unconditional, near-total reduction of military commitment,” the report said, would have horrible consequences: “This policy risks a complete failure of the Iraqi state, massive chaos and even genocide.”

The nearly hopeless situation is escaping media attention. The Project for Excellence in Journalism index of news coverage for the week of March 31 to April 6 showed that events in Iraq were in third place, behind stories on the economy and the presidential campaign. The campaign was first, and the most popular issue was whether Clinton should drop out. That simple subject is perfect for 24-hour news channel pundits. But it is not relevant to what is happening in Iraq.

Such coverage on television, on the Internet and in print is perfect for the Bush administration. Without enough reporters on the ground and in Washington, the real story of Iraq won’t be told.

And given the present trend in the media business, it will get worse. Sam Zell, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and other properties, asked in February if it “really requires six people or nine people to cover the same Iraq story?” Yes, it does, and many more. The war is poisoning the country with its daily toll of dead and wounded, both Americans and Iraqis. Without coverage that puts pressure on the candidates, the United States will be trapped in the quagmire for many more years.

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