We Americans have just one more chance to get it right in Iraq.

We failed tragically in the invasion of Iraq five years ago when our leaders marched us into the war without a clue about the tumult and insurgency that would result from a policy that was built upon baseless assumptions, blind faith and boundless hubris.

We failed again when we re-elected the president who had committed our troops to a war with no defined end point, siphoned resources from our mission of crushing al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan — and was blindsided when his failed policy spurred the emergence of a new al Qaeda in Iraq.

And we in the news media also have been failing, this time in Campaign 2008. We have been failing to insist that the presidential candidates demonstrate something that our current president never understood — the range of consequences of their Iraq war plans.

On April 16 in Philadelphia, journalists have a chance to get at least that much right, as ABC News hosts a Democratic presidential debate before the Pennsylvania primary. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have plans for quick, steep troop withdrawals from Iraq that have many consequences that are so far unexplored. The stay-the-course plan of the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is fraught with best- and worst-case consequences, too.

We’ll get to the key questions. But first, all who want to get it right can start by reading an insightful new book, “Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq,” by respected British journalist Jonathan Steele of the Guardian newspaper. According to Daniel Benjamin, a national-security staff assistant in the Clinton White House and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Steele went beyond the other important Iraq war books by posing and answering a new question. In a Washington Post review, Benjamin summarized it as: “Could we have ever gotten this right?”

No, Steele says — because the Bush administration used a wrong template that doomed the U.S. occupation from the get-go. U.S. officials said they expected the occupation in Iraq would work as well as it did in Germany and Japan after World War II. But Steele said Iraq’s culture and history meant that Iraqis would never tolerate any prolonged occupation. Steele wrote about L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S. occupation, who blithely explained the growing insurgency by saying Iraqis merely had “a perverse resentment that we liberated them.”

In the April 16 debate, Obama and Clinton must be asked a series of non-gotcha questions that will lead them beyond the debate about where Bush went wrong. America’s next moves in Iraq may be pivotal. Violence is significantly reduced due to several factors: Increased U.S. troops; Sunni insurgents switching to support U.S. troops and oppose al Qaeda in Iraq; and a cease-fire ordered by Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. But our next president must grasp the hard realities, slippery nuances and shifting alliances that can be the making or unmaking of the next chapter of a war on terror.

Among the questions Obama, Clinton and McCain should be asked:

Iraq: As U.S. troops are sharply reduced, how will the safety of the remaining American forces be assured? If troops remain in large numbers, will they forever be targets for roadside and suicide bombers? What will former Sunni insurgents do once U.S. troops depart? Will they continue to oppose the al Qaeda in Iraq, which would help the Shiite majority stabilize Iraq? Or realign themselves with the terror group to oppose the Shiites? What is al Sadr’s real intent — to command his militia to fight the Sunnis as before or to turn on the Iraq military in order to wrest control from other Shiite factions?

Iran and the region: What are al Sadr’s ties to Shia-dominated Iran, and will he seek to create an Iraq that takes its cues from Iran? How will a new Iranian influence affect power and influence relationships throughout the region — including with Saudi Arabia and Egypt? How will those ties affect Iran’s support of terror groups in the region, including those that threaten Israel?

Afghanistan: Will a withdrawal of troops from Iraq permit an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan? Can and should the United States and Europe erase the Taliban’s recent gains? Is Afghanistan in danger of again becoming a failed state from which al Qaeda can plot against Europe and America’s homeland?

The Pennsylvania debate performance — of the candidates and our media colleagues at ABC — is our next-best chance to show we can finally get it right in Iraq.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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