It's an odd thing to say, but true nonetheless. Thanks to bad news about the economy dominating the presidential campaign, Americans have enjoyed a holiday of sorts from Iraq. Bipartisan agreement on the need for an economic stimulus package has replaced televised images of sectarian slaughter in Iraq and partisan standoffs at home.
Our holiday is nearly over. Iraq is coming back.
American deaths rose in January to 39, from a record-low 23 in December. And February got off to a bloody start Friday, with two female suicide bombers blowing up Baghdad markets, killing at least 64 people.
Even without more carnage, Iraq is certain to emerge as a central election issue. It has been muted in part because the GOP candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney largely agreed that the surge is working and that we cannot abandon Iraq to Islamic extremists. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both say it is time to end the war and have only slightly different timetables for pulling out our troops.
With the parties soon to pick their nominees, the partisan war over the war likely will reignite and remain hot through November. But it won't end there. While Democrats will probably have solid majorities in Congress next year, they will have trouble putting their Iraq policies in place even if they win the White House.
It's not just that Republican resistance will continue. It's also because Clinton and Obama have unrealistic plans for withdrawing our troops.
In what amounts to political pledges, both senators say they will begin withdrawing troops almost immediately after taking office. Their approach is similar to what they accuse Bush of doing making up his mind about Iraq, then surrounding himself with military officers who agree with him. What if the facts don't fit their plans?
Clinton addressed Iraq in an interview with the Daily News Editorial Board last week, including her rough treatment of Gen. David Petraeus last September, where she swatted away his testimony with the line, "The reports that you provide us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."
She insisted she does listen to military leaders. "I have very good relations with both active-duty and retired military officers because they know that I'll listen, and they know that I will express my opinion and ask hard questions," she said.
I asked her to suppose that, as President, her commander gives similar advice to Petraeus': that even a rapid reduction of our troops would invite a return to wholesale slaughter and increased influence from Iran. If she plunged ahead with a total withdrawal, wouldn't she be guilty of cherry-picking convenient advice?
"I think there is a very significant difference. I think that the President, to quote Stephen Colbert, would often 'fix the facts' to support his decision," she said. "I believe that the evidence over the last five years gives us a basis of facts on which to make certain conclusions about the way forward in Iraq."
She added: "I do not think that there is any argument that can be credibly made that we should not begin to withdraw on military and on political grounds. Now, the wheres and hows, of course, we're going to do it as safely and responsibly as we possibly can."
In the most recent debate, she cautioned that, even in a withdrawal, we had to protect our soldiers, American civilians, our diplomats and Iraqi allies. As she spoke, images of our allies in Vietnam scrambling to get on our last helicopters out of Saigon came to mind.
Clinton prefers a sunnier vision, saying: "I'll give you a counterargument that I have been exploring with people who have experience and expertise in the region, that it would be the worst nightmare of the Iranians for us to withdraw because what would happen is that the various sects or sectors of the Iraqi society, among the Shiites themselves, would begin jockeying for position. And Iran would be forced to pick sides, which would engender a nationalist reaction."
Hmm. That sounds suspiciously like the Bush administration's rationale for toppling Saddam and liberating the Iraqis. A democratic Iraq would yield a democratic Iran, Bush argued.
We know how that worked out.
In fairness, Clinton is thinking seriously about the consequences of her plan. If Obama, who promises a faster withdrawal, agrees to a Daily News interview, he'll get the same questions.