If the gladdest tidings of this pre-Christmas season have been the US intelligence community's brilliant move to undermine a Bush attack on Iran by revealing there is no Iranian nuclear weapons programme, the worst news concerns US policy on Iraq. And it is not just the US announcement of plans to get the Iraqi government to agree to permanent US military bases and an open-ended occupation, thereby confirming what most analysts had long assumed was the Republicans' intention.
More alarming was the Democratic party's reaction and indeed that of the US media. The revelation produced no burst of headlines or commentaries, even though it rides roughshod over most Americans' wishes. A Pew Research poll two weeks ago found 54% wanted the troops home "as soon as possible".
Yet the Democratic contenders for the presidency barely murmured. The passion for a clear timetable of an early US troop pullout that was raging in large sections of the Democratic party last spring, in the weeks after it regained control of the House and Senate, has fizzled out.
Whatever effect Bush's "surge" of extra troops has had in Iraq, it has clearly worked in Washington. The Democrats are in retreat, and the Bush strategy of entrenching the Iraq occupation still further and handing the mess to his successor is proceeding virtually unopposed.
Hillary Clinton, in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, pledged to maintain US troops in Iraq indefinitely to train and equip Iraqi forces, as well as keeping "specialised units" to protect the trainers and confront al-Qaida. She would also leave troops in the northern Kurdish regions. Barack Obama told the New York Times last month that he would need 16 months after taking office to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq, and would retain a residual force on an open-ended basis "to counter terrorism". He might decide this force would be better based outside Iraq, he suggested, so his position is marginally better than Clinton's. Neither candidate is willing to propose a total US troop withdrawal, as the US agreed in Vietnam in 1973 when it finally resolved to end its disastrous involvement there.
The Democrats' new softness flows in part from the reduction in US combat deaths. The so-called Awakening movement by some Sunni tribal leaders to take arms and money from the Americans to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq has reduced the difficulties for US troops. There is also a perception, carefully nurtured in General David Petraeus's statistical charts and testimony to Congress in September, that the back of the Iraqi resistance has been broken. Now the Iraqi government is trumpeting the fact that thousands of Iraqi refugees are coming home as further proof of a turning security tide.
But none of these indicators is firm. The figures for returning refugees are contested, with the Iraqi government counting anyone who crosses into Iraq even though many had only gone abroad on short visits and were never refugees. Many genuine refugees leave Syria in desperation because their money or visas have run out, not because they feel safe in going back.
When I talked to families in a muddy bus station on the outskirts of Damascus last week as they set off home, I found only Shias. "Of course Sunnis are afraid to go. The buses are provided by the Shia-led Iraqi government and Iraqi police will check them at the border," an Iraqi Sunni told me later. His comment underlined the continuing depth of sectarian suspicions. Sunnis assume the Iraqi police, who are mainly Shias, are either in league with Shia militias and death squads or will behave just as badly. They fear being abducted or slaughtered on the way.
Sunni concerns over Shia militias also explain the Awakening movement. Although Sunni tribal leaders are taking US arms and cash, ostensibly to confront al-Qaida, they see value in getting organised to protect their suburbs from Shia raids. The Americans may be temporarily helping to reduce violence, but their tactics help to build up Sunni militias for possible attacks on Shias in the future. Once again the Americans are looking for a military solution to what is essentially a political problem. Without national reconciliation and dialogue between Sunni and Shia community leaders - a process which neither the government of Nuri al-Maliki nor General Petraeus seems able or willing to broker - the underlying issues remain unresolved.
The Iraqi resistance is also undimmed. The nationalist Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, has called a unilateral ceasefire, which is largely holding while the US troop "surge" is under way. The Sunni resistance is doing much the same, though without formally declaring it. As I was told by a senior resistance spokesman in Damascus, many nationalist groups have reduced their attacks in western Baghdad and parts of Anbar province while regrouping and retraining.
A few weeks earlier I spoke to one of the spiritual fathers of the Sunni insurgency, Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, now in exile in Amman. The head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, he argued that the Awakening movement only represented a small proportion of Sunni tribal leaders. "The situation in Anbar is very bad, and many are out of work and impoverished. Some will work with anyone who pays them, whether it is al-Qaida or the US army. I agree the attacks on US forces in Anbar have gone down, but in a few months they may go up again. The US is building its hopes on a small trend. It doesn't follow it will continue," he said.
His remarks chimed with a poll conducted in mid-August for the BBC and ABC news. It found Anbar was still the strongest bastion of hostile anti-US opinion in Iraq. While criticising al-Qaida's attacks on civilians, every Anbar respondent supported attacks on US forces: 70% wanted them to leave immediately, a higher figure than in a March poll before the "surge".
One day Iraqi resistance leaders will have to be brought into negotiations. They are a legitimate factor in the complex Iraqi equation. National reconciliation which attempts to exclude people who have sacrificed so much in the struggle against foreign occupation has no chance of succeeding. The pre-condition - as happened when the Vietnam war ended - has to be a clear declaration by Washington that it is going altogether, with no bases or "residual forces" left behind. Only then will Iraqis come to the negotiating table seriously, and work out a future that does not leave an elephant in the room.
Jonathan Steele's new book, Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, is published next month.
© 2007 The Guardian