If the current volleys being fired between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are any indication, the Iraq war will be the main and deciding issue for this election.
It's a risky move for McCain to latch his campaign to a cause that Americans oppose by almost a 2-1 margin. But a sudden breakthrough in the situation in Iraq could swing things his way. Of course, any upticks in violence could send him to a crushing defeat.
McCain's and Obama's respective positions on the war could not be more different. Obama says the war is unwinnable, and that the only course is to leave. McCain argues that the war is winnable if we stay long enough - maybe 100 years.
The problem with this debate is that neither side is using the same definition of winning. McCain is stuck on winning as a military accomplishment, seeing politics getting in the way of victory.
In a purely military sense, McCain is right. Militarily, we could keep fighting until every Iraqi is dead, or just push a button and turn Iraq into a radioactive parking lot.
But does this accomplish the political mission?
The reality of war is that it is always political. War is the achievement of political goals through military means. You can no more separate politics from war than you can take fish out of water and expect them to live.
The broad political objective in Iraq was to create a democratic government friendly to America that would spread to other countries in the region, thus giving American-hating terrorists no place to hide.
But killing more and more Iraqis doesn't get us closer to that goal. Neither does rattling sabers at Iran, which is closely allied with the Shiite majority ruling Iraq.
Meanwhile, the associates of the terrorists we were supposed to be fighting in Iraq are making peace deals with our good friends in Pakistan, creating a better safe haven for Osama bin Laden to hide while America is busy two countries over.
The failure in Iraq is not with the military, and it can't be corrected by military means. The problem is political and multifaceted: How to get Sunnis and Shiites (and their various rival factions) to live together in peace, while not helping out Shiite-led Iran, and keeping the Kurds from starting a war with NATO-member Turkey, protecting access to oil in the Persian Gulf, and defending the conflicting interests of American's Arab allies and Israel.
Piece of cake, right?
There's an R-rated word Clint Eastwood used in the movie "Heartbreak Ridge" that describes this situation pretty well.
Dealing with promises from politicians is fraught with challenges. First, they may not do what they promised. Second, they may not be able to deliver on those promises. And third, making good on promises may cause more harm than good.
There doesn't seem to be much evidence that Obama and McCain would suddenly change their minds on Iraq if they found themselves in the Oval Office, so let's scratch that one.
I think there is some reason to question whether Obama could deliver on his promise of a quick, safe pullout from Iraq. But that pales in comparison with the problem McCain would have trying to maintain the military presence he wants in the face of a hostile Congress. Even if he becomes president, he will likely not get his 100-year war in Iraq with Democrats holding the purse strings.
But it's the third point where McCain has the most trouble. He might (and that's a big might) be able to win the war by his narrow military definition, but the cost will be enormous. Just the financial cost to the U.S. Treasury may make victory look like Napoleon's conquest of Moscow. And the associated problems caused by pacifying Iraq may make the situation in the Middle East even more unstable, dangerous and costly.
We'll have to wait a while to see if President George W. Bush can brew up an "October Surprise" in Iraq to help his chosen successor. But right now, it looks like Iraq is a losing issue for McCain. And unlike many other issues which he has changed his mind on over the last couple of years, he's stuck with Iraq for the long haul.
• Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.