FOR TODAY'S presidential candidates, the question is unavoidable: What is your plan for Iraq?
In interviews and town hall meetings, on talk shows and at fundraisers, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani and all the others aspiring to succeed President Bush confront a battery of Iraq questions: Are you for the surge or against it? If the surge fails, what's your Plan B? How will you help the troops win? How will you get the troops out?
However sincere, such questions are also pointless. To pose them is to invite dissembling. The truth is that next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It no longer lies within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome of events there. Iraqis will decide their own fate. We are spectators, witnesses, bystanders caught in a conflagration that we ourselves, in an act of monumental folly, touched off.
The questions that ought to be asked now — but so far have not been — are of a different order.
Recall that Bush saw Baghdad not as the final destination of his global war on terror but as a point of departure. He imagined that liberating Iraq might trigger a flowering of Arab democracy. He was counting on Saddam Hussein's ouster to jump-start a regional transformation. He expected a forthright demonstration of U.S. military might to enhance America's standing across the Muslim world, with friend and foe alike thereafter deferring to Washington.
None of that has come to pass. Baghdad has become a cul-de-sac. Having plunged into a war he cannot win, Bush will not relent. Iraq consumes his presidency because the president wills that it should. He has become Captain Ahab: His identification with his war is absolute.
As a consequence, the "global" effort aimed at eliminating Islamic terror, launched back in September 2001, has narrowed in scope. Today the global war is global in name only. In reality, it has become a war for Mesopotamia.
For his part, the president increasingly preoccupies himself with tactics at the expense of statecraft. Much as Lyndon Johnson once reviewed lists of targets to be bombed in Hanoi, Bush now ponders how many brigades will be needed to impose order on a handful of neighborhoods around Baghdad.
Ritualistic allusions to freedom as the antidote to terrorism still occasionally crop up in presidential speeches, but rhetoric no longer translates into action. An administration that once touted its expansive and principled approach to preventing another 9/11 has abandoned principle. Now there is only Iraq and the effort to ensure that today's news out of Baghdad isn't any worse than yesterday's.
Our political attention, then, needs to turn to whether the president's would-be successors can do what Bush cannot: acknowledge our failure in Iraq and look beyond it.
Candidates who still find merit in an open-ended global war on terror should explain how we prevail in such an enterprise. Given the lessons of Iraq, what exactly does it mean to wage such a global war? Where can we expect to fight next, and against whom? What will victory look like?
Candidates who, in light of Iraq, have become skeptical of open-ended global war as a response to violent Islamic radicalism should be pressed to describe their alternative. How do they define the threat? How do they propose to deal with it? Will they isolate it? Contain it? Subvert it? Relying on what means and at what costs?
"What's your plan for Iraq?" was the right question back in 2002 and 2003 — although it went largely unasked and almost completely unanswered then. But as we approach the 2008 presidential election, though the tragedy of Iraq continues to unfold, that question is moot.
The one that matters is this: As President Bush departs and leaves the United States bereft of a coherent strategy, what should fill that void?