How's the war going? It all depends on who's talking or writing. Do you go with the doubters-at-a-distance who've been saying the war was lost even before it began? Or with the separate but equally sure experts who've been assuring us we're on the verge of victory for years now.
Do we finally admit all is lost when the next IED or car bomb takes its toll? Not just on the ground but in the spirit. It's tempting. Enough has been more than enough. And yet not enough for Americans to accept defeat. We've been here before. In Korea. In Vietnam. Through unity and division, advance and retreat and stalemate. There are no guarantees in history, only the inescapable responsibility of making it, however much we might prefer not to.
We scan the headlines looking for hope. Should we take heart from the latest news out of Anbar, where Sunni chieftains have finally decided to team up with the Americans against the terrorists who've been horning in on their traditional territory? The change there has been the most dramatic and most welcome of the war's various ups and downs and sidewayses.
Remember when Anbar was the Triangle of Death, and even the professional optimists were admitting it was lost? It hasn't been too long just last year since the Marine Corps' chief of intelligence was quoted in the Washington Post as having given up hope for that province. He was said to have concluded that the prospects of securing the Sunni heartland "are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the situation there."
The absence of any effective government in that western province, according to his report, had created "a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force."
But that was before David Petraeus had taken command of Coalition forces, and before the surge he'd planned and the 30,000 additional troops he'd requested to carry it out had begun to have their effect. It was also before it had become clear that al-Qaida had overplayed its hand, as fanatics always do, by trying to push around the local sheiks. Things now look as good in Anbar as they looked bad a year ago.
The pendulum has swung but could swing back again. War is uncertain hell. As an American general named Eisenhower once noted, "Every war will surprise you." This one certainly has. Again and again.
General Petraeus, who wrote the book on counter-insurgency warfare, or at least edited the latest manual on it, has overseen a shift in strategy that has begun to produce a shift in results. What had been one of the most dangerous place in Iraq for Americans Anbar province has become one of the most secure. As even the war's critics, or at least those susceptible to being influenced by the facts, have acknowledged. Hillary Clinton, for instance.
Still, there is no shortage of bad news out of Iraq, either, even if number of terrorist incidents is said to have declined of late.
Predictions about the war's outcome have been about as steady this year as the stock market. Which trends will pan out, which won't? Which are the true indicators, which fleeting and false? Whom to believe? Is there no one simple way to discern which way things are going, no single index of progress in the field or lack thereof?
Yes, there is. Watch which way Hillary Clinton is going on the war. Through it all, from her vote in favor of this war to her latest vow to end it, her statements have been a reliable reflection of how the war seemed to be going at any given time:
She voted to confirm Gen. Petraeus for his new command and fourth star when he represented a hopeful change in American strategy in Iraq. Later, when hope had ebbed, and she had to compete with the likes of Barack Obama and John Edwards in anti-war fervor the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is well under way she would tell Gen. Petraeus it would require a "suspension of disbelief" to credit what he and the chief American envoy in Iraq, too were saying about the war.
Last month, with reports from the field showing some progress, Senator Clinton voted to vaguely condemn MoveOn.org's attack on the general ("General Betray Us") before declining to vote for another resolution that defended him specifically. And so she goes, like a political pendulum.
Her zigzag course would make John Kerry's opposite but equal stands on the war four years ago look rock-solid. Remember how he voted for that $87 billion appropriation for the war before he voted against it?
Conclusion: You can tell how the war is going, or at least how Americans think it is going, by following Senator Clinton's every twist and turn on the issue.
This much can be confidently predicted: Hillary Clinton will never abandon our troops in their hour of victory any more than she'll support the war when it looks like a losing cause. In that way, she's been perfectly consistent.
Will the senator now from New York, and now the frontrunner in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, wind up supporting the war? It depends. On how well it seems to be going at the time. Which is why the thought of Hillary Clinton as wavering commander-in-chief of the armed forces after noon on January 20, 2008, does not assure.
One is reminded of her spouse's stand, or rather his carefully crafted lack of one, on the first war against Saddam Hussein the one fought over Kuwait in 1991. Bill Clinton's stand on that war was so flexible that, whichever way it had come out, he could claim his views had been vindicated. And did. By now that political strategy has become a family tradition.
There is more involved here than the outcome of a presidential race or even of the campaigns in Anbar or Afghanistan. We now stand at the beginning of another generational struggle akin to the Cold War, which turned hot from time to time, too. Throughout that long struggle, decade after decade, there was only one sure guide that in the end saw freedom through: constancy of purpose. That is easy enough to say, it is bloody hard to maintain.