Thus begins the GOP presidential candidates’ inevitable withdrawal from this politically disastrous issue:

The United States has been distracted “for a while” by military setbacks and political heat surrounding the Iraq war, Giuliani said, not focusing enough on al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan…

Some of Giuliani’s comments echoed critics of the war in Iraq who argue that the invasion drew attention and resources away from the battle against the home base of al-Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani, however, called the Iraq war “enormously important,” but he said other challenges from Islamic terrorism also demanded attention.

“I said it a long time ago … America is too consumed with Iraq,” he said. “We’ve got to be patient and committed (in Iraq), but we’ve got to multitask. We’ve got to have conversations beyond Iraq. We’ve got to talk about Iran — Iran is more dangerous than Iraq — and we have to get the job done in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.”

He said that might involve reorganizing United Nations forces, committing more U.S. resources, considering U.S.-led airstrikes on al-Qaeda targets in northern Pakistan or taking a tougher line with Musharraf — or pursuing all those steps.

This is the best a Republican can do, realistically. He’s got to be a hawk to please the base but he’s got to get away from Iraq and Bush or else he stands no chance in the general. Solution: uber-hawk, whose hawkishness is so comprehensive that it barely has time for Iraq. Presumably this is cover for a first tentative step towards the Democratic position that the “real” war on terror is elsewhere, such that we simply must redeploy to be more hawkish; if he’s seriously proposing that we keep troop levels where they are in Iraq and get more aggressive in Pakistan (uberhawk) and Iran (uber-uberhawk), then he’s dead on arrival. The trick, in other words, is to retreat while convincing Republicans that they’re actually on the march. If the fallout from withdrawal is as bad as most expect, there’ll be plenty of guilt-wracked folks eager to believe it.

Semi-related, read this thoughtful post from James Poulos at the American Scene arguing that repudiating Bush and Iraq will be the great catharsis conservatives need to return to their roots. I think he’s kidding himself in the extreme about the “great wave of relief” that will allegedly follow, whether or not some defanged contingent of troops is left in country to preside over the Hobbesian nightmare, but it’s an eloquent attempt.