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EVERY MORNING now, John McCain gets out of bed on the wrong side of history. No wonder he's in a foul mood.

It's not only his frequent references to Czechoslovakia that suggest he's living in a time warp. (The Czech Republic split from Slovakia in 1993.) It's also his Vietnam-era insistence that there's a peace-with-honor ending to be found in the criminally tragic blunder that is the war in Iraq.

Recent events have confirmed that there will be no "victory" in Iraq, not in any reality-based definition of the term. Words like "success" and "winning" have no meaning there. They never did.

Everyone - except John McCain, apparently - now knows this. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surely does. After hesitating, Maliki stood by his statements agreeing with Barack Obama that the United States should start packing up to leave. Even the Bush administration started calling "timetables" by another name ("general time horizons"), suggesting the eventual withdrawal of combat troops. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday said 60 percent of Americans want a timetable to get out of Iraq, compared with 30 percent who don't.

In the same time span, McCain's rhetoric on Iraq has turned increasingly ugly. "Obama would . . . rather lose a war than lose a campaign," he has said more than once. But you can

almost feel the political tides shifting as Americans allow themselves to look to a future beyond the Iraq war.

As they do, there are ominous signs that we could miss the lessons we must learn from our folly there. They depend on how we view last year's troop "surge" and what it didn't accomplish.

The keepers of the conventional wisdom apparently have decided, perhaps in the interest of showing how balanced they are, to split the difference. Their analysis goes like this: The addition of 30,000 more American troops to a peak of 167,000 last summer worked. The escalation of the war resulted in a reduction of violence - and that's what made it possible for Obama to credibly call for an orderly withdrawal of troops.

So, the line goes, President Bush was right to order the surge, McCain was right to support it - and Obama is being churlish for not admitting it.

This analysis is factually incorrect, and it threatens to lead to more Iraqs.

In an interview with CBS this week, McCain had yet another "senior moment," crediting the military surge with the decision of Sunni tribes to turn against al Qaeda, developments that took place several months before the surge started. But McCain's trouble with the facts, while distressing, isn't the most important issue here.

Focusing only on the last 18 months in Iraq seeks to airbrush out the first four bloody years of a war that did not have to be fought, $3 trillion that would not have been spent, hundreds of thousands of lives that would not have been lost, two million or more refugees who would not have been exiled - and a U.S. Constitution that did not have to be undermined.

Focus on the surge credits military force with accomplishing change when it most likely was deals with Iraqi tribes and the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad that reduced the violence. And it doesn't take into account the increased damage to the U.S. military, the neglect of the war in Afghanistan, and the terrible financial burden the surge imposed. It's imperative that the next U.S. president weigh all the costs before deciding when and whether to ever again commit American troops in a war of choice. The next U.S. president needs to find the right side of history. Czechoslovakia is gone forever, and so is the notion that there is something like a military "victory" that can be won against terrorists. *