Get ready for some fireworks on the Left if Leon Panetta’s prediction comes true.  Iraq will likely ask the US to extend its troop commitment beyond the departure date negotiated by George W. Bush in 2008 in the Status of Forces Agreement, which Barack Obama has used to claim as a promise kept to get America out of Iraq.  Panetta told the Senate that the US needs to respond positively to maintain the progress made in Iraq:

Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, predicted on Thursday that Iraq will ask the United States to keep some American forces in that country beyond year’s end, the current departure date. …

“I think it’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of presence to remain there,” Panetta said, adding that it was contingent on what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requests. “I have every confidence that a request like that is something that I think will be forthcoming at some point.”

Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there are about 1,000 al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq and the situation is fragile. “I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we’ve made there,” he said.

Gee, you know who else said that?  John McCain, during the presidential campaign.  Democrats responded maturely with a claim that McCain wanted to stay in Iraq for 100 years of war.  Obama reiterated his promise to pull American troops fully out of Iraq within 16 months.

Hope and change, baby.  Hope and change.

That’s not to say that Panetta’s wrong; he’s absolutely right.  The gains in Iraq are too hard-bought to see them dissipate due to a lack of will by the US, especially if Iraq is willing to invite us to stay.  Furthermore, Panetta’s estimate of AQ fighters in Iraq is about seven times that of the administration’s estimate of AQ in Afghanistan.  If AQ still wants to square off against the US military and Iraq wants us to continue to fight them on the ground, it’s a good opportunity to have them waste their resources fighting soldiers and Marines rather than targeting American civilians at home … as George W. Bush and John McCain also argued.

Hope and change, baby.  Hope and change.

Besides, we want Iraq to gain strength and independence in relation to its larger neighbor, Iran. An American pullout would put a weak Iraq at the mercy of the mullahs to their east and invite all sorts of mischief.  Keeping significant levels in Iraq allows us to have a military presence on both sides of Iran, a position that allows us to exert pressure on the mullahs, a situation that the Iraqis probably would want to see continued for their own purposes.

If American troops stay in Iraq, though, the Left will pitch an absolute fit.  They will scream about broken promises and make the easy comparison to Bush and McCain.  That doesn’t mean that the Left will be able to challenge Obama in a primary, but it will mean that all of the progressive enthusiasm and anti-Bush rallying cries will be notably diminished or absent in 2012.  Given the state of the economy, that’s likely to produce the kind of change for which Obama hadn’t planned.