It has been the dream of Republican neoconservatives at least since 1998 - and probably years before - to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to use the new client state of Iraq as the US's military and political base from which to pacify the complex and troubled Middle East. Leaving aside the plausibility of this notion, it is not one with which the great American leaders of history would have identified and certainly not one they would have attempted to carry out in secret.
Having failed in this enterprise, as some of us predicted, the question is: what now? There is still the possibility that a central remnant of this secret scheme may yet be salvaged. Surprisingly, the trick has drawn little attention from the American audience. It is to help install at least the semblance of a "democratic" government in Baghdad, even one that in author Fareed Zakaria's perceptive term is an illiberal democracy; to construct permanent US military bases at strategic points throughout the country and then persuade the new "democratic" government to invite us to stay.
So, now that the debate has finally turned not on whether to stay or to go but on how soon and under what conditions we should leave, it would be a mistake of epic proportions to assume things are that simple. There is an old movie line my friend Frank Mankiewicz, the veteran political adviser, is fond of quoting: "These are desperate men and they will stop at nothing." This he said during the Watergate years and we all knew what he was talking about, but it also applies today. For those of us who warned against kicking a Middle East hornets' nest, to assume that now it is simply a question of timing would be to assume that the neo-con Houdinis who gave us Vietnam-in-the-desert are out of tricks.
Any attempt to find out whether the US is, or is not, constructing permanent military bases meets with frustration. The few who have attempted to get a direct answer to this question are met with evasion and purposeful confusion over what is or is not "permanent". But this is the ultimate test of true Bush administration intentions in Iraq. If we are, in fact, constructing permanent bases, "leaving" simply means a reduction of forces and the permanent stationing of US brigades in Iraq. If this "compromise" solution appeals to you, you might wish to refresh your memory about the disastrous French experience in Indochina or even certain phases of the British occupation of Iraq.
Under circumstances where Congress was performing its constitutional oversight responsibilities, and where the press was less intimidated by power, it would be a straightforward exercise to determine whether a final neoconservative trick is afoot. Congressional committees would have senior civilian and uniformed Pentagon and State department officials answer direct questions about US plans. "Mr or Madame secretary, are we, or are we not, constructing permanent military bases in Iraq and, if so, for what purpose?"
But this Congress has made clear it is a purely partisan institution, not a separate branch of government, and that it has no intention of fulfilling its duties to oversee the executive branch and inform the American people. Obviously, reporters could do the same with the White House press secretary (with no serious hope of an honest answer) or, even better, the president.
And to forgo predictable semantic sleights of hand, let us define "permanent" as: fixed, solid, durable and lasting. In practical terms, that means pouring concrete and welding steel, not tents and ditch latrines.
It is a shame for any American to distrust the veracity of his or her leaders. But the current crop has given us more than enough reason to do so. So when the president says: "When they [Iraqis] stand up, we will stand down," it cries out for an explicit definition of what "stand down" means in practice. Otherwise, "stand down" will quickly join "stay the course" and "support the troops" as rhetorical substitutes for policy and the equivalent of the scarves magicians use to obscure the concealment of an ace up the sleeve.
The art of deception does not require outright lies. It may simply lie in refusing to reveal the truth, the art of the trick. Given all the purposeful obfuscation, deception and card-shuffling that went on during the run up to the Iraq war, and the shuck-and-jive since things turned ugly, does anyone seriously believe the neoconservative magicians are out of tricks?
The writer, a former US senator, was twice a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. His new book, The Shield and The Cloak: The Security of the Commons, is out this month (Oxford University Press)
Originally Published in the Financial Times