06/02/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

Will Iraq Tilt the 2012 Election?

Nobody should be surprised that deadly violence is making an alarming return to daily life in Iraq. The real surprise may come a year from now. If the Iraqi government can't hold itself or the country together, foreign policy could leap ahead of jobs and spending as a major campaign issue in the next presidential race.

Anybody want to bet on how many American troops will still be in Iraq after December 31st? The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by George W. Bush is a plan not a guarantee. The Iraqis may ask for some of our troops to stay on into 2012. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently said he'll make that decision by August.

We have learned during eight years of military intervention in Iraq that plans and policies can change direction at any moment. From 2005 through 2007, President Bush, along with his supporters in Congress and the media, relentlessly ridiculed and dismissed the notion of setting a "date certain" for US forces to be out of Iraq. They called it a "surrender date" that would undermine the war effort and give a huge morale boost to the other side.

As he railed against "arbitrary" and "artificial" timetables, Bush insisted that withdrawal of U.S. forces would happen "when conditions on the ground are right." By December 2008, they had apparently become right enough for him to accept 12/31/11 as a date certain and approve the SOFA.

Now conditions on the ground are changing once again, and the big question is how much a continuing U.S. presence can affect the situation. Baghdad's terrible descent into chaos after the 2003 invasion was turned around by three factors. There was a troop surge; it was aided immensely by the emergence of Awakening Councils (paid by the U.S. military) that encouraged Sunnis to cooperate with coalition forces and oppose al-Qaeda; and Moktada al-Sadr put himself and his Mahdi Army militia into a collective timeout.

Now there are no U.S. troops in Baghdad, the influence of the Awakening Councils has faded, and al-Sadr is resuming his aggressively anti-American campaign in southern Iraq. Tensions are also flaring again in the northern city of Kirkuk. Its population of Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs has never shown shown much enthusiasm for power sharing.

The history of Iraq is a maze of cultural relationships and rivalries. But promoters of the invasion downplayed those complications in favor of a simple scenario: Saddam Hussein was a dangerous madman who had to be removed. It was like sending in a new sheriff to clean up the town. There was even an Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, busily promoting himself for a top leadership role in the post-Saddam era.

Many years ago, a British diplomat named Roger Makins observed that "Americans have always liked the idea of dealing with a foreign leader who can be identified and perceived as 'their man.' They are much less comfortable with movements." The people who thought Ahmed Chalabi was "our man" were quickly disappointed. His popularity in Iraq turned out to be far less than advertised to his American friends in Washington.

The current prime minister is walking a fine line these days, insisting to all Iraqis that he is not our man but not quite ready to declare that his regime is totally self-sufficient and no longer requires any American military assistance. Perhaps al-Maliki really will make a decision on that issue by August. Perhaps he's waiting for another opportunity "when conditions on the ground are right." It's hard to know if such a moment will ever exist, or ever did.

What if the various factions in Iraq decide they are better off consolidating their own power centers instead of trying to maintain a unified state? Countries do break apart. India and Pakistan split when the British gave up control. Yugoslavia fractured after Tito died. The Czech Republic and Slovakia managed their separation so well it's sometimes called the "Velvet Divorce."

If Iraq starts heading into national divorce mode, U.S. options will be grim. How many Americans would support the idea of our troops risking their lives to suppress social and political hostilities that have existed for centuries? And if we decide against further military involvement, an equally serious problem is how to withdraw our remaining forces while avoiding the appearance of being "chased out."

A lot can happen between now and election day 2012. If I was a presidential candidate, my team of advisors would include at least one person assigned to focus exclusively on future military scenarios in Iraq and the surrounding region. I would also tell that person that no one in my campaign should use terms such as "date certain." One thing all Americans should know by now is that in the Middle East, nothing is ever certain