But in recent days, two highly respectable versions have emerged. One comes from the former terrorism czar in the Clinton White House, Richard Clarke, and the other from Professor Martin van Crefeld of Hebrew University in Israel, one of the world's leading military historians and analysts, and the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's required reading list for officers.
Clarke and van Crefeld each believes the war to have been a serious strategic mistake. Van Crefeld, in a recent op-ed article in the Jewish paper Forward, calls it "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them" and adds Bush "deserves to be impeached."
Clarke is more measured in his critique, saying essentially that Iraq distracted attention from the real priority of the war against al-Qaida, and the Iraq campaign has made al-Qaida far more menacing by fracturing the international coalition and inspiring and recruiting new jihadist recruits by the thousands.
Speaking in New York Monday after a conference on Terrorism and Islam organized by Brown University's Watson Institute and by the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Clarke argued enough has been achieved for the United States to declare victory and leave.
There are four essential questions about a withdrawal, Clarke suggests. The first is how to characterize the withdrawal in a way that does justice to the Iraqi, U.S. and coalition casualties.
"We have to be able to say that something was achieved," Clarke emphasizes. And he notes the triple achievement of bringing Saddam Hussein to trial, ending the Iraqi military threat to its neighbors, and organizing the Iraqi elections to install a legitimate, democratic, independent and internationally recognized government makes a decent justification of the war.
The next question is how and when to begin, and Clarke suggests early next year, after the December elections install the new parliament or after the end of Saddam's trial. Senior U.S. officers and politicians of both parties have already been discussing the prospect of cutting troops by three brigades or more next year, and an early start to troop reductions is probably feasible, and politically useful to the increasingly demoralized Republicans in Congress facing mid-term elections next year. Clarke's third question is when to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and he sees no reason why the withdrawal cannot be complete by some time in 2007. But his fourth question is crucial, also addressed by van Crefeld: The nature of the U.S. residual presence in the country or the region.
"Tehran is certain to emerge as the biggest winner from the war -- a winner that in the not too distant future is likely to add nuclear warheads to the missiles it already has," van Crefeld writes. "In the past, Tehran has often threatened the Gulf States. Now that Iraq is gone, it is hard to see how anybody except the United States can keep the Gulf States, and their oil, out of the mullahs' clutches. A continued American military presence will be needed also, because a divided, chaotic, government-less Iraq is very likely to become a hornets' nest. From it, a hundred mini-Zarqawis will spread all over the Middle East, conducting acts of sabotage and seeking to overthrow governments in Allah's name.
"The Gulf States apart, the most vulnerable country is Jordan, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Amman," van Crefeld continues. "However, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Israel are also likely to feel the impact. Some of these countries, Jordan in particular, are going to require American assistance."
Clarke also sees the need to maintain some kind of regional military presence to secure the Gulf states, possibly from bases in Kuwait, along with cast-iron guarantees of the integrity of Iraq's frontiers. There are other ideas circulating in the Pentagon, including the establishment of a major and possibly permanent base in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where U.S. troops are less controversial, and would be welcomed by the neighboring Turks, always worried at the prospect of an independent Kurdistan becoming a magnet for their own disaffected Kurdish minority.
This kind of thinking about the post-occupation U.S. presence in the region is important, not only because of the looming ambitions of Iran, but because the immediate target of al-Qaida and the jihadists, once the U.S. troops withdraw, will be the pro-Western regimes of the Gulf states.
But like Murtha and all the other Democrats, Clarke and van Crefeld are not deciding policy. And there is no sign that President Bush, or Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the other two sides of the iron triangle that determined the war, its course and its aftermath, are ready to fold their tents and leave, whatever the 2006 and 2008 election timetables. They also have some important bipartisan support, of which the most notable recent example is Sen. Joe Liebermann's report in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal on his latest visit to Iraq, which persuaded him the United States must stay what he characterizes as an increasingly promising course.
Bush, rightly or wrongly, is not the kind of president to quit easily. But Bush is no longer the sole decision-maker in Iraq. Last week's Cairo conference of the various political players in Iraq, brokered by the Arab League, was critical in the way that Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite leaders compromised to reach a joint communiqué. To win over the Sunnis, it demanded "the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable" and noted that "resistance is a legitimate right for all people" while stressing that "terrorism does not represent legitimate resistance."
In return, the Sunni representatives signed up to "the establishment of an immediate national program for rebuilding the armed forces through drills, preparation and being armed, on a sound basis that will allow it to guard Iraq's borders and to get control of the security situation."
The Cairo conference suggested there is now not just a reasonable political discourse, but also the makings of a stable and representative body politic in Iraq, which will reach real maturity when it feels able to negotiate a withdrawal timetable with the United States and coalition forces. If the Dec. 15 elections proceed as hoped, that moment looks likely to arrive at some point next year, and an agreed and orderly withdrawal could well come close to Clarke's timetable.
Ironically, it might prove more difficult to negotiate van Crefeld's thoughtful suggestion of a remaining regional presence for U.S. troops than to agree and arrange the withdrawal itself.