By all accounts, the United States' midterm elections have produced a political earthquake by handing over control of the Senate and the House of Representatives to Democrats. And by all accounts, the trigger of the quake was Iraq.
Surprisingly, however, Iraq, although used as a code concept for attacking President George W. Bush, was hardly debated in the context of its broader realities and the impact its future might have on the regional and, indeed, the global balance of power.
The word "Iraq" brought together a disparate coalition that might unravel, now that the Democrats share greater responsibility in shaping policy.
The coalition included people who do not give two hoots about Iraq or American policy in the Middle East. To them Iraq was a theme that played well against Republicans in Peoria. With the elections over they may to try to milk that cow further by focusing on what happened before the war rather than what is to be done now. They are not interested in saving American policy, they dream of impeachment proceedings against Bush on the grounds that he deceived the Congress by doctoring intelligence on Iraq. These revanchists wish to feed the Republicans the same fare that Bill Clinton swallowed over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Then there were those who believe that Iraq is not worth the candle because, as a creature of British imperialism, it is unviable as a nation-state.
The "Iraq is a failure" coalition also includes people who blame everyone for the current violence there. Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence are blamed because of their role in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and creating "The Arab world". Western powers are blamed because they supported repressive regimes in Baghdad, until 2003. The first President Bush is blamed because he did not finish the job in 1991 and allowed Saddam Hussein to keep power. The "neocons" are blamed because they duped George W. into invading Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld is blamed because he sent too few troops to do the job.
To such people, it was not Saddam Hussein that made Iraq what it was but Iraq that made Saddam what he had been during three decades of bloody misrule. These people blame everyone except those actually doing the killings in Baghdad.
Finally, the "Iraq is a failure" coalition also includes people who agree that while getting rid of Saddam Hussein was right, the way the Bush administration handled the postwar situation was incompetent. That segment of the coalition is further divided into subgroups.
Some say the US should send in more troops. Others insist that most US troops should be withdrawn. Some think the way out of the alleged "quagmire" is to divide Iraq into three or five mini countries. Others suggest that the US make a deal with the mullahs in Tehran for an Irano-American condominium in Iraq. Then there are those who want the US to lead an Arab bloc to oppose Tehran's attempts at creating a "Shiite Crescent" in the Middle East.
It is remarkable that in an election supposed to have hinged on the issue of Iraq little of substance was said about what the US should actually do in concrete policy terms.
As a result, what we have is a garbled message.
We know that a majority of Americans are unhappy about Iraq. But we cannot be sure why they are unhappy. Are they unhappy because the US intervened in the first place? Or are they unhappy because the US has not committed enough troops to pursue a more robust strategy? Are they unhappy because they dislike Bush on other issues and find Iraq a convenient way of venting their hatred just as some Republicans, who hated Clinton for other reasons, used the Lewinsky affair to get at him?
With the election over, the use of Iraq for other purposes may end if only because all the leading putative candidates for the presidency, Republicans and Democrats, had supported the intervention and remain committed to new Iraq.
It is, therefore, time to have real debate on the way ahead in Iraq.
For such a debate to take place Americans must ask themselves three questions: What are we doing in Iraq? Is it worth doing? Are we doing it well?
They key question, of course, is the first one.
If the Americans decide they have no business in Iraq, the rational policy would be quick disengagement. Some, including the Council on Foreign Relations, already offering such analyses, have called on the US to step aside and allow the Islamic republic to reshape the Middle East.
During the election campaign, only two brief remarks, one by President Bush and the other by Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who will assume the speakership of the House of Representatives, hinted at the core issue of a debate that must take place.
Bush's contribution came in the context of his well-known assertion that Iraq was part of the broader "war on terror." According to Bush, the US is in Iraq to prevent its enemies from turning it into a new haven for terrorism. The Bush position could be summed up thus: "We are there, because they are there."
Pelosi's remark was equally simple: "They are there, because we are there."
Both statements could be right or wrong, according to time and place.
Bush is right because during the past three decades we have witnessed the emergence of a global movement to challenge the United States' position wherever possible, especially in the Middle East in the name of a radical version of political Islam. Much of the violence in Iraq is the work of self-styled jihadists who had fought in other theaters, including the Philippines, the Gulf, and Afghanistan, against US influence, and even if Iraq had not become a battlefield, would have gone to fight in other lands.
But Bush is wrong in assuming that the US must necessarily be in the front-line in every struggle involving self-styled jihadists. For example, the jihadist campaign in Algeria in the 1990s had nothing to do with any real or imagined US presence there. Nor are self-styled jihadists in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kashmir and Chechnya engaged in wars against the United States.
Pelosi is right because had the US not intervened in Iraq there would be no American forces there that jihadists could challenge. But the same could be said about 9/11: Had there been no Americans in New York and Washington there would have been no attacks.
One thing is certain. The jubilation expressed in jihadist circles as a result of the Republicans' defeat may be misplaced. There is no evidence that the US election would produce a "Madrid effect" in the sense of a strategic retreat in the face of the jihadist challenge. No one could claim a majority of Americans voted for a "cut-and-run" policy. Although some Democrats hinted at that option, they were careful not to appear as the party of defeat.
During the election campaign Pelosi and company might have talked of "Bush's war" or the "neocons' war". But now it is their war, too. If it is won they will share in victory. If lost, they will share the blame. That may turn the idea of helping Iraq transform itself into a stable pluralist polity into a bipartisan cause, uniting rather than dividing Americans. And that would be bad news for self-styled jiahdists whose only hope of victory lies in an American loss of resolve.