John McCain continues to talk about a U.S. “victory” in Iraq and Sarah Palin baits Barack Obama for not using the word “win” when he discusses the war. But the hard reality facing whoever becomes President is a looming strategic defeat.

WThe shape of that defeat is outlined in the Oct. 13 draft of the “status-of-forces” agreement negotiated between Washington and Baghdad in which the United States accepts a full withdrawal of its combat troops by the end of 2011, or earlier if the Iraqi government demands.

Over the past several months as the agreement has taken shape, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has escalated its demands, and the Bush administration has made concession after concession. Yet even now, many powerful Iraqi politicians -- especially among the Shiites -- are demanding that American troops get out even faster.

Iraq seems intent on telling the United States the diplomatic equivalent of “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

If that’s the case, the United States may end up achieving almost none of its core geopolitical objectives despite the deaths of more than 4,000 soldiers, the maiming of more than 30,000 others, and the expenditure of $1 trillion or more in taxpayer dollars.

Though President George W. Bush sold the war to the American people as needed to protect the nation from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, it turned out that Hussein had no WMD stockpiles and presented no genuine threat to the United States.

The war’s real motives – dear to the hearts of neoconservatives close to Bush – were to project American power into the Middle East, establish military bases for pressuring Iran and Syria on regime change, create a puppet Iraqi government friendly to Israel, and secure U.S. access to Iraqi oil.

The neocons, many of whom cut their foreign-policy teeth on the Reagan administration’s hard-line strategies in Central America, saw Iraq as a Middle East version of Honduras, which in the 1980s was used as a base to launch military strikes against Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua and other leftist movements in the region.

Viewing the Central American outcome as a success – despite the horrendous death toll – key neocons, such as current deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, sought to apply those lessons to the Middle East with Iraq playing the role of Honduras.

‘Real Men’

So, after the relatively easy U.S. conquest of Iraq in spring 2003, a joke within neocon circles of Washington was whether to strike next at Syria or Iran, with the punch-line: “Real men go to Teheran.”

These realpolitik motives were rarely mentioned publicly, but this neocon dream of the United States achieving military dominion over the Middle East was always at the center of the Bush administration’s thinking. It was in line with the grandiose ambitions of the Project for the New American Century.

Yet, when the American people weren't being told the scary fictions about Hussein attacking with his imaginary WMD, they were hearing President Bush’s noble talk about protecting human rights and spreading democracy.

But that was mostly window-dressing, too. In reality, there has been little progress on democracy or human rights in key U.S. allies in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the Persian Gulf sheikdoms.

When limited experiments in democracy were tried, they almost invariably backfired, partly because Bush is widely despised in the region. U.S.-supported Palestinian elections brought radical Hamas to power in Gaza, while the Iraqi elections deepened sectarian schisms and exacerbated the violence in 2005 and 2006.

The latest irony is that Bush’s desire to use the status-of-forces agreement to cement a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq – essentially to lock in the next occupant of the White House – has had the opposite result.

Given broad Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation – and with new elections scheduled for early 2009 – Iraqi political factions are trying to position themselves as defenders of the nation’s sovereignty, not American puppets.

That political dynamic has led to reducing the U.S. military options contained in the evolving status-of-forces agreement.

New Draft

The latest draft, dated Oct. 13 and translated by Iraqi political analyst Raed Jarrar, sets firm deadlines for the removal of U.S. combat forces from Iraqi cities and towns (June 30, 2009) and for their final departure (Dec. 31, 2011).

In a little-noticed concession, the Bush administration not only gave the Iraqi government veto power over any U.S.-desired extension of the departure date, but wording was inserted to require clearance through “constitutional procedures” for the U.S. military presence to go beyond 2011, an apparent reference to approval from the Iraqi parliament.

With key factions hostile to an ongoing U.S. military presence, that wording would seem to lock in the withdrawal dates. Although the Bush administration has tried to spin the U.S. departure as “conditions-based,” it now has the look of a firm timetable.

Other language in the agreement requires the United States to turn over any fixed bases to the Iraqi government at Baghdad's discretion.

So, the neocon dream of transforming Iraq into a land-based aircraft carrier for carrying out military strikes against Iran, Syria and other perceived enemies appears to be ending, regardless of whether neocon favorite, McCain, succeeds President Bush, or Obama does with his plan to remove U.S. combat forces over 16 months.

Under the latest version of the status-of-forces agreement, the only option for carrying out the neocon plan would seem to be the raw imposition of American imperial dominance, a move that would meet widespread international resistance and likely rekindle the insurrection inside Iraq.

The far more likely outcome in Iraq is the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces, with Washington left with little to show for its investment in blood and treasure.

If that indeed is what happens, the supposedly “successful surge,” which has cost more than 1,000 American lives, will have done little more than buy Bush time to exit the White House before the full consequences of his military adventure become obvious.

As for Iraq, it seems doomed to continue as a country plagued by sectarian rivalries. The Shiite majority will establish close relations with neighboring Shiite-ruled Iran; the Sunnis will remain resentful over their reduced status; and the Kurds will insist on their autonomous region in the north.

Whether a meaningful democracy can survive long amid these tensions – and the recent history of horrific violence – is doubtful. The bitter end-result for the Iraqis may be the Balkanization of their country into sectarian enclaves or the emergence of another strongman in the mold of Saddam Hussein.

For the United States, memories of its military intervention in a country halfway around the world may fade gradually into history, swallowed by the shifting sands of the ancient land of Mesopatamia, another chapter of failed imperial overreach in a long saga dating back to Biblical times.

Despite the terrible price in blood, treasure and prestige, little may remain of Bush’s adventure besides the recognition of a painful strategic defeat for the United States and a historical reminder about the arrogance of power.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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