Fareed Zakaria: How come the candidates aren't adapting their rhetoric on Iraq?

How come? Because (a) you can’t abandon a talking point you’ve been clinging to for five years, especially this close to an election, and (b) neither side is confident that the status quo is really the status quo. Nor is Petraeus, for that matter. So each party lumbers on to November, the Democrats declaring defeat and the Republicans declaring victory and Zakaria declaring an urgent need for international peacekeepers that no one but no one will be volunteering, least of all NATO with its hands full in Afghanistan. The only developments realistically that might change the political game are the end of the Mahdi Army ceasefire, the long-awaited jihadi Tet, or the signing of the long-term security partnership with Iraq that Bush is trying to nail down, all of which play into the Democrats’ narrative of unending war.

Pity the U.S. presidential candidates. They had their positions on Iraq all worked out by last summer and have repeated them consistently ever since. But events on the ground have changed dramatically, and their rhetoric feels increasingly stale. They’re fighting the Iraq War all right, but it’s the wrong one.

The Democrats are having the hardest time with the new reality. Every candidate is committed to “ending the war” and bringing our troops back home. The trouble is, the war has largely ended, and precisely because our troops are in the middle of it…

Iraq remains deeply divided. The national reconciliation that Iraqi politicians promised has not occurred. Some movement has taken place on sharing oil revenue but on almost nothing else. The complicated new law on de-Baathification has been, in the words of a senior Iraqi official, “a big mess, perhaps worse than if we had done nothing.” The non-Kurdish parts of the country remain utterly dysfunctional, and chaos and warlordism are growing in the south. Of the 2.5 million Iraqis who have fled the country, a trickle—a few thousand—have returned home.

This is why Republican rhetoric about Iraq is also somewhat unhinged. John McCain deserves credit for supporting the surge. But the notion, articulated by many Republicans, that if we just stay the course a bit longer we will achieve “victory” is loopy. Iraq is seen—and will be for years—by the rest of the Middle East as a cautionary tale and not a model.

Exit question: Is there anything besides some unexpected parliamentary moves towards sectarian reconciliation that could happen in Iraq between now and November to buttress the GOP’s “victory” narrative? With the left backing away from congressional confrontations and the economy taking precedence for voters, the status quo would keep the issue in no man’s land. Bush seems intent upon that security agreement, though, which will reignite the whole debate three months before Election Day. Maybe Kaus was right about him being a coalition killer.