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Time to make candidates answer on Iraq

If you go to the Republican National Committee's website, you can watch the clock labeled "Days Since Barack Obama Visited Iraq." Tick, tick, tick. Nearly 900 days and counting.

Over at moveon.org, a young mother in a 30-second ad looks into the camera and tells John McCain -- who must be plotting to send her adorable baby boy to fight in his 100 Years War -- "You can't have him."

We've spent roughly $1 trillion, lost more than 4,000 Americans, seen tens of thousands of Iraqis die. And the debate in this country over the war amounts to a bout of locker-room towel snapping.

Republicans pretend Sen. Obama can't lead on Iraq because he hasn't banked enough Green Zone photo ops. The Democratic charade is that Sen. McCain, who spent five years in a Vietnamese prison, doesn't care how long young Americans die in the desert.

With the primary season over and conditions shifting on the ground in Iraq, it's time for the media to bear down on these would-be commanders in chief with a few tough questions.

I called half a dozen of the most thoughtful commentators on Iraq, and they agreed that it's time, to re-mint a phrase, for some "straight talk."

"It drives me crazy," said retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq. "There is no post-surge strategy. We are talking about staying indefinitely. We have not mobilized the country in any real way. And the military is decaying before our eyes."

Batiste wonders why we haven't heard a coherent strategy from McCain or Obama about what happens after "the surge," the troop buildup due to expire next month.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted how much McCain talks about "victory," while most observers have long since given up on an Iwo Jima-style ending.

"What would Iraq have to look like for you, John McCain, to think that's a victory?" Biddle wondered. "And what exactly are we pointed to that remains worth spending American lives and treasure?"

Don't think that means Biddle would let Obama off the hook. "What is his achievable policy in Iraq," Biddle continued, "and if that fails, are the consequences trivial or are they severe, like a regional war or global depression?"

An American reporter who spent two years in Baghdad told me she opposed the U.S. invasion. But she wondered how Obama and Democrats, who favor some foreign interventions to prevent genocide, had neglected the possible humanitarian question in Iraq.

"How do they know that the moment we leave, the Shiites, who we have trained and put in power, are not going to turn those guns on the Sunnis?" asked the reporter. "There is a real moral argument for staying there." (The reporter asked not to be named, because her editors advised her not to express her personal opinions for the record.)

If McCain gets credit for supporting the surge, which has helped reduce violence, shouldn't he also be pressed to explain his less prescient moments, such as predicting an easy triumph in Iraq? How, despite his supposedly superior foreign policy credentials, could he have been so wrong?

Obama gets credit for opposing a war whose initial goal -- protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction -- turned out to be an illusion. Shouldn't he have to account for opposing the surge, which has enhanced the safety of Iraqis and American GIs?

Neither of the candidates really has been pushed to say what he would do about the 4 million displaced Iraqis. Doesn't the United States (which has taken in fewer than 10,000 Iraqis, compared with 1.2 million refugees who came here after the Vietnam War) have an obligation to take in more of those who risked fighting by our side?

It's no surprise that the two presidential candidates don't talk squarely about the war. And the media are making it easy for Americans to forget. Iraq has gotten less then one-third the evening news air time this year that it received in 2007.

Two government surveys out this week suggest that dramatic security improvements have made Iraq more stable.

But this week's reports also point to the fragility of the gains, the Iraqi military's continued inability to perform independently and the shortfalls in most basic services.

It's not that reporters don't try to clarify the boundaries of the conflict. A reporter asked McCain recently if he would honor an Iraqi request to protect their country from outsiders indefinitely.

"We have, and can, with the success of the strategy, withdraw American troops," read a portion of the response from the Arizona senator, sounding like a cross between Yoda and Mr. Magoo. "And that's success. That's the way wars end when you win, is that you succeed and then you withdraw."

The media need to cut through such fog. Then reporters need to do something extraordinary: cut McCain and Obama some slack, if they change their minds.

The Iraq experts I interviewed agreed that one of the most problematic barriers to a real debate is -- as author and journalist George Packer said -- a culture that has "made 'flip-flopper' the most feared label in American politics."

They could point to another politician, fact-averse but stalwart, who took too long to adapt once it became clear Iraq was going sideways.

"It seems in America you are stuck with the position you adopted, even when events change, in order to claim absolute consistency," Packer said. "That can't be good."

james.rainey@latimes.com

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