It is inevitable that at some point in the presidential campaign the Iraq debate will turn from recriminations over how did we manage to get in to the question of how do we reasonably manage to get out.

The fury of anti-war Democrats and their determination to punish Hillary Clinton for her 2002 vote authorizing the military incursion gave an enduring lift to Barack Obama’s primary run. The simplest calculation would now have it that the solid majority of Americans who are sick of the war and have come to agree that it should never have been waged will also swing to Obama and help carry him to the Oval Office.

This is the idea behind an emotionally charged new advertisement, paid for by and other Democratic interest groups, depicting a young mother bouncing her cherubic infant, Alex, and speaking to the camera as if she were face to face with Republican John McCain. “John McCain, when you say you would stay in Iraq for 100 years, were you counting on Alex? Because if you were, you can’t have him.”

Leave aside the fact that with an all-volunteer military, no president can automatically “have” an American child to send into battle. The premise is that since McCain voted for the war — and has been stalwart in his refusal to set a firm timetable for withdrawal — the logic of the anti-McCain argument on Iraq is clear and simple.

But the politics of Iraq already are turning out to be not so simple.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, McCain and Obama are virtually tied on the question of “who do you trust more” to handle the war in Iraq. When the question is phrased more broadly — who do you trust more to handle international affairs — McCain leads Obama, 49 percent to 43 percent.

The findings are noteworthy in good measure because they are strikingly similar to those found in a May survey by the Pew Research Center. When asked which candidate would “make wise decisions on Iraq,” McCain was chosen over Obama, 46 percent to 43 percent. That’s down from the advantage McCain enjoyed in April, when he led Obama 50-38 on the same question.

The polls were taken before this week’s blast in a crowded Baghdad market, a flare of sectarian violence that, at the very least, reminds Americans that Iraq remains a deadly and dangerously confusing place. For all the apparent progress in subduing violence that has resulted, in part, from the American military surge, the Iraqis have not achieved the political progress that was supposed to follow.

At the same time, it seems, the American public hasn’t reconciled itself to what the United States should do next. Sentiment for withdrawal is strong — but even this has ebbed slightly, according to the Post poll. The percentage of those saying the United States should withdraw from Iraq to avoid more casualties, “even if that means civil order is not restored there,” has dipped from 59 percent last July to 55 percent in the most recent survey.

This is one reason why the political debate must shift from an argument over who was right six years ago to who will set the right course now.

Obama’s planned withdrawal is, ultimately, the correct course. But he has so far given insufficient explanation of what, in his view, would amount to a successful — or even a successfully managed — outcome to the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Likewise McCain’s stubbornness in refusing to lay out a clearer path toward withdrawal allows what his critics contend: an unconditional commitment of an overstretched military that allows the Iraqis to postpone reconciliation.

An unasked question also begs to be heard: What do we owe the Iraqis? Their hospitals, schools and other institutions suffer. The humanitarian situation is dire. In many ways, the foundations of orderly society have crumbled. What is the American obligation to reconstruct it?

Americans do not want to stay in Iraq indefinitely. But neither do they seem to want the leave-taking to be marked by symbols of failure — no moment that captures the absurdity of American involvement like the famous 1975 photograph of a helicopter on a Saigon rooftop, its operators powerless to evacuate a throng of Vietnamese civilians clamoring to get on board.

The political debate on Iraq does, indeed, have to move on. It must come at last to the point where the candidates confront how best to do so.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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