April 23, 2008 -- BOTH opponents and supporters of the war in Iraq seem reluctant to raise the issue of what's going on there now as an issue in the presidential race.
Opponents, of course, can't deny that things are better than a year ago - and may fear that this could persuade voters that President Bush was right after all.
After all, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided that the war was "lost" a year ago. And critics have sounded the tocsins about the supposedly coming Iraqi civil war for five years. (Some even suggested at times that Iraq was already in civil war.) They've also predicted "the end of Iraq," including its de facto partition into sectarian cantons. Yet Iraq has defied all those predictions.
Perhaps worse for the antiwar crowd, close examination of Iraq's situation today might lend credence to Bush's analysis that the Islamic Republic in Iran has emerged as the chief troublemaker there. That could lead only to one conclusion: the need to act against Tehran.
War supporters share that concern, though for different reasons: They can't seem to build a consensus on dealing with the Iranian threat. Since they also can't be sure the recent easing of the situation in Iraq will last until Election Day, it may seem wisest not to push the issue.
But how to avoid a serious discussion about Iraq now? War opponents have an easy answer: Focus on the ugly parts of the past five years.
They claim that the war was illegal, presumably because France's Jacques Chirac didn't specifically approve it and the UN's Kofi Annan moaned about it two years after the fact.
And they cite pseudo-studies that claim hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths as a result of Saddam Hussein's demise - conveniently ignoring the fact that these studies (including a scandalous one published by the Lancet) have been exposed as bogus.
They also bring up the scandals of Abu Ghraib, allegations against profiteering by big US companies, and, last but not least, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.
If war opponents always shift the focus back to the past, war supporters look to a putative future - countering their foes' jeremiads with some of their own.
Their catalogue of coming catastrophes runs something like this: If America abandons Iraq now, genocide would follow; al Qaeda would revive; Iran would benefit enormously; the Middle East would become destabilised; America's word would be devalued, and so on.
All of that, of course, might happen - we simply don't know.
For my part, I don't think that a US departure would lead to genocide. The Iraqis are not Huttus and Tutsis; the sectarian war we witnessed a couple of years ago was a war of the sectarians - not a conflict that set neighbor against neighbor as in Rwanda or former Yugoslavia.
Nor do I think that al Qaeda would be revived. Al Qaeda in Iraq has had its back broken. Having lost the popular base it once had in parts of Sunni Iraq, it has little prospect of winning power anywhere in the country.
I don't think that Iran would benefit either. On the contrary, it might find itself bearing some of the burden that America now bears in Iraq. And that does not look like beneficial for a fundamentally weak and fragile state like the Islamic Republic, which increasingly faces challenges at home.
Would the Middle East be further destabilized? Again, we don't know. The US presence has helped keep some tensions under control; its departure could release them, leading to regional wars. But even a major war, like the Iran-Iraq one in the 1980s, wouldn't necessarily affect the broader balance of power.
Even the argument that US withdrawal could devalue "America's word" isn't that strong. Most people, in the Middle East as elsewhere, know that elections change US administrations and that the priority of each party is to win power, not to comfort allies.
Three decades ago, America abandoned its allies in South Vietnam to massacre, concentration camps and boat-people ordeals. It shut its doors to the shah of Iran, a lifelong ally - and, after admitting him for medical treatment, quickly expelled him in the most humiliating manner. Yet, elsewhere, America's word was not devalued.
Why? America is estimated with regard to its economic, military and cultural power - all likely to remain unsurpassed in for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps more important, when all is said and done, is that the America has often behaved better than other major powers in history. All big powers betray; the United States has betrayed less than most, and les brazenly.
THE only useful debate about Iraq would focus on what is happening now - not what happened five years ago or what might happen five years from now.
It is what is happening now that makes new Iraq worth fighting for - not only for the Americans but also for all who dream of a free, pluralist, prosperous Middle East.
Iraq has bled, but remained unbowed. Iraq has resisted al Qaeda and the Iranian terror machine. Iraqis are learning to build a new society based on pluralism and are discovering the values that, in time, helped develop the Western democracies.
Despite all its sufferings, or perhaps because of them, Iraq has not succumbed to the forces of darkness, partly thanks to continued US support. That good news merits being part of the presidential debate.