Get out at any cost? Or stay in it to win it, no matter what it takes?
The presidential candidates have staked out positions on the Iraq war and its aftermath that reside between those two extremes.
Among the two Democrats and one Republican vying for the White House, GOP Sen. John McCain is proposing the most enduring commitment while Barack Obama is his seemingly rigid opposite in saying the U.S. will be out in one year, period.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton promises to start the withdrawal and the rest is intention.
The New York senator is essentially sticking to a line of reasoning once followed by her Democratic rival before he adopted a timetable — that one cannot promise how the end game will finish without seeing conditions on the ground once in office.
Indeed, Obama last year said it would be irresponsible to commit to a withdrawal plan before knowing what facts he would face in January 2009. But commit he has.
And in the Democratic debate Wednesday night, Obama said he would "proceed deliberately, in an orderly fashion, out of Iraq," staying with that objective while letting military commanders recommend tactics to achieve it.
Clinton reasserted her commitment to begin a pullout within 60 days even if military leaders counseled against it.
There have been several indications in the Obama campaign that the Illinois senator might be flexible, although equivocation is rarely heard from him — or Clinton — on the stump.
In recognition that a presidency is driven by events, not just doctrine, an Obama foreign policy adviser said last month that he would not be bound by his timetable for withdrawal — then 16 months — but would institute a pullout plan according to the situation he inherits.
The adviser, in hot water for calling Clinton a monster in a newspaper interview abroad, was quickly out of the campaign. And Obama disowned her realpolitik.
"I will bring this war to an end in 2009," he asserted, "so don't be confused."
A look at their positions on the war and its aftermath:
- Voted for war, opposed troop increase. Would begin withdrawal within two months of taking office but has not committed to a timetable for completing it. Proposes pulling out one or two combat brigades a month. Recent troop reductions are expected to leave 15 combat brigades in Iraq this summer.
- Leave a limited force, size not specified, to protect vital U.S. interests. Have specialized forces in region capable of operations against al-Qaida. Earlier in campaign, described a postwar force inside Iraq that would not move against ethnic strife but be capable of containing it to certain areas.
- "We simply cannot give the Iraqi government an endless blank check. It is time to end this war as quickly, as responsibly, and as safely as possible."
- Keep troops fighting in Iraq until Iraqi authorities can maintain stability and U.S. security goals are achieved. Let conditions determine force levels, not any withdrawal timetable. Says latest strategy is succeeding. Supported decision to go to war, but was early critic of the manner in which administration prosecuted it. Key backer of the troop increase.
- Foresees permanent U.S. peacekeeping forces in Iraq.
- "To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests, and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility. It is a failure of leadership."
- Spoke against war at start, opposed troop increase. Now says he would complete withdrawal of combat troops by end of 2009, four months sooner than his previous commitment. He would remove one or two combat brigades a month.
- After withdrawal of combat brigades, keep "some troops" in Iraq to protect U.S. diplomats and station a force — inside or near Iraq — capable of striking al-Qaida if necessary.
- "It's a failure of leadership to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq that has failed to press Iraq's leaders to reconcile, badly overstretched our military, put a strain on our military families, set back our ability to lead the world, and made the American people less safe."