If you have some expertise in the politics of the Iraq war, you will instantly find the gaffe buried in the following Mitt Romney riff: "[My assessment of Iraq] is very consistent with what the president is speaking about and what we're hearing from Iraq right now. And that is that the surge is apparently working." At last week's GOP debate, John McCain caught it straight away: "No, not 'apparently.' It's working." He continued, "I can assure you, it's more than apparent. It is working, and we have to rally the American people." Romney is, in other words, apparently a surrender monkey.

The debate over the war has been, to be fair, an all-around depressing spectacle. Even though Democrats have controlled Congress for over eight months- -and even though they vowed to make Iraq the raison d'etre of their majority-- they have done nothing to affect the course of the war.

That's what made the Senate's questioning of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus such a therapeutic, even exhilarating, exercise. There have been plenty of Iraq war reality checks--take your pick from any of the grim reports published in the past week alone. But, here, searching questions from the senators forced the two public faces of the Iraq occupation to admit painful realities. When asked to justify his claims of progress toward political reconciliation, Crocker cited what The Washington Post called "obscure comments by important clerics" and meetings between Iraqi politicians who once ignored each other. Asked about his confidence that the Baghdad government would improve its performance, Crocker replied shakily, "My level of confidence is under control."

And that, in understated form, is the rub. While our recent dalliances with Sunni sheiks have yielded some benefits, our strategy still depends on warring sects joining together to swing around the maypole of the central government in Baghdad. It's worth pausing to consider the absurdity of this strategy. Our own national security adviser has denounced the prime minister of that government-- a sectarian hack who has abetted the most nettlesome militias, even installing them in key government ministries and allowing them to dominate the national police. The sense of Sunni helplessness has never been greater, a helplessness that can be clearly seen in migration statistics. Since the start of the surge, Iraqis have fled their homes at a rate that has approached 100,000 a month. As Senator Joseph Biden put it last week, "The administration continues to believe that we can achieve political progress in Iraq by building a strong national unity government. ... That will not happen in the lifetime of any of us."

This fact darkly hovers over every possible course of American action. If we stay, continuing to pursue the president's course, then we risk American lives in pursuit of an unachievable goal. If we leave with the current sectarian governmental structure as is, we risk an even greater chaos than we face now.

For the past year, Biden and the Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb have peddled a plan for the "soft partition" of Iraq. It would radically devolve power to Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regional governments with a central government securing the borders and parceling out oil revenues. Their plan has languished until now, and, admittedly, it suffers from serious flaws. Aside from the Kurds and one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), none of the main Iraqi players have any interest in carving up the country. The status of Baghdad would pose a Jerusalem-like obstacle to any federal agreement, to say nothing of the details of oil-sharing and shared security. If the plan failed to thread any of these needles, it could inflame sectarian tensions rather than calm them.

Despite these immense obstacles, partition has begun attracting support across Washington. U.S. cooperation with tribal sheiks in Anbar and Diyala has shown it is possible to nurture a Sunni political elite that doesn't tolerate Al Qaeda. The mass flight of Iraqis from mixed neighborhoods has reshaped the map--creating a country that, sadly, can be more easily carved into three. And, unlike other alternatives to Bush's bullish insistence on American "victory," partition has the makings of bipartisan consensus. It doesn't just bear the imprimatur of Democrats like Biden and Gelb--it has the tentative endorsement of neoconservatives like David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer. (Of course, they might chafe at one of the necessary preconditions for ultimately negotiating a new arrangement: importing the United Nations as a broker.)

It has become fashionable to trumpet the "organic"--or "bottom up"--move toward a new Iraqi federalism. But there's probably not enough time on the political clock for the tectonic plates of Iraqi politics to naturally settle. By now, it's abundantly clear that the war won't end on George W. Bush's watch. But it's also clear that it is creaking to its grim conclusion with or without him. Our military can't sustain current troop levels for much longer, and there's a substantial likelihood that Bush's successor will want to quickly put an end to this unpopular war. This is the political and logistical reality. If we don't begin reshaping our strategy to conform to it, we will be guilty of the same sort of myopic planning that unleashed this chaos in the first place.

Dethroning Coal

Oil gets all the attention, but it's coal--that other fossil fuel--that may be the planet's undoing. Last week, during a House climatechange committee hearing on "The Future of Coal," Representative Edward Markey grimly noted that there are over 150 coal plants now on the drawing board in the United States, with another 3,000 expected to be built worldwide by 2030. All told, those plants would cough up enough carbon to dangerously raise global temperatures. "That," Markey muttered dryly, "would spell disaster for the planet."

And so, the coal industry, wary of incurring the wrath of Congress, has hit upon a new strategy. Its leaders have now taken to explaining that coal itself isn't the enemy. If power plants could sequester their carbon--capture it and store it deep underground--then coal could be clean and we could avoid the worst consequences of climate change without radically overhauling our energy economy. Of course, this technology isn't quite perfected yet, and the transition won't be easy, so the industry would probably need roughly ...

$40 billion in subsidies for its troubles, according to one estimate. Shockingly, at the hearing, Markey--one of Congress's greener members--agreed with this vision, saying, "All indications are that [carbon capture and storage] is a viable interim solution to the coal problem."

That's overstating things. Experts don't expect sequestration to be viable on a commercial scale for at least a decade--if ever (no one yet knows if the carbon will stay underground without leaking out). The costs, meanwhile, will be considerable: Utilities will either have to rejigger existing plants or build new ones, while putting in place a vast array of pipelines and monitors. That's hardly an "interim solution": Continuing to build coal-fired plants at the current rate for another decade, while waiting for a technology that may never arrive, would be suicide. (The coal industry, for its part, may be looking to build as many "dirty" plants as it can right now, hoping to grandfather them into any future regulatory regime.)

Nor is it clear that sequestration will be economical: One GAO analysis predicts that electricity from carboncapturing plants will cost up to 78 percent more than electricity from conventional coal plants. By the time the technology becomes viable--if it ever becomes viable--solar and wind power could well be cost-competitive alternatives. So, while we should certainly fund further sequestration research--it may, after all, be our only hope of mitigating the impact of the hundreds of coal plants China and India are building--massive coal subsidies should hardly be a top priority.

Nonetheless, many leading Democrats appear wary of telling the coal industry to shove off. John Edwards has the boldest environmental platform of any Democratic front-runner, but even he would reportedly allow coal companies to keep building plants so long as they were merely capable--one day, maybe--of capturing and storing carbon. That means none of the top three Democratic presidential candidates have echoed James Hansen, nasa's top climate scientist, and called for a straight-up moratorium on any new coal plants that don't sequester their carbon.

True, Hillary Clinton and her competitors must be eyeing the votes of West Virginia--and possibly even Virginia-- where King Coal reigns supreme (even if the mining industry isn't universally beloved for devastating the landscape, poisoning streams and rivers, and flouting safety regulations). Edwards, for his part, recently secured a critical endorsement from the United Mineworkers, which opposes a coal-plant moratorium. And Barack Obama has to be wary of coal interests in his own state of Illinois. Still, some lines need to be drawn. Already, around the country, from Montana to Florida, environmental groups have been filing lawsuits and launching grassroots campaigns to halt the construction of new dirty coal plants. Surely Clinton, Edwards, and Obama have the guts to join them.

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