Barack Obama frequently chastises people for contributing "more heat than light" to the public debate. An admirable sentiment. I wish he would adhere to it more regularly himself.

A Democratic line is emerging about Sen. John McCain that is voiced daily by Sen. Obama (and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) in the presidential campaign.

"Senator McCain said the other day that we might be mired for 100 years in Iraq," Obama says, "which is reason enough not to give him four years in the White House." Or more directly, as Obama told a Houston audience, McCain "says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq."

Obama's claims are, at best, deliberately misleading. At worst, they are the type of politics-as-usual distortion that the Illinois senator usually decries. No one, in politics or the media, who voices the "100 years" canard is being fair-minded. So let's put it to rest now, once and for all:

On Jan. 3 in Derry, N.H., a voter prefaced a question to McCain by saying, "President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years . . ." Here, McCain cut him off, interjecting, "Make it a hundred."

The voter tried to continue his question, but McCain pressed on: "We've been in . . . Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. It's fine with me, I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, equipping and recruiting and motivating people every single day."

McCain's analysis is, objectively speaking, exactly correct. Throughout history, U.S. troops have remained in the field long after the conclusion of successful wars.

The Philippine-American War was fought between 1899 and 1902. U.S. troops stayed there even as the country took baby steps toward self-governance. The Japanese invaded at the beginning of World War II, but the United States returned in 1945, liberated the Philippines, and granted the country independence in 1946. Yet U.S. forces remained there until 1991, when the last U.S. naval base was closed. During that time, the Philippines progressed from an unstable, newly democratic state, to a semidictatorship, to what now looks like an imperfect, but functioning, democracy.

The Korean War began in 1950, with fighting ending three years later. Today, thousands of U.S. troops remain in South Korea, and that country has progressed from authoritarianism to real and stable democracy. In 1957, a dozen years after the end of World War II, there were 151,000 U.S. troops in Japan. By 2005, 35,500 troops were still there, and Japan had become a model nation.

Across our other ocean, U.S. soldiers were fanned out across Western Europe at the close of World War II. As postwar reconstruction began in Germany and Italy, U.S. troops stayed in large numbers: 269,000 in Germany and 7,000 in Italy in 1955. By 2005, 66,000 U.S. troops were in Germany and 12,000 in Italy.

Heck, the United States occupied Iceland in 1941 to protect the country from the Nazis, who had just seized Denmark. Sixty-seven years later, more than 1,000 U.S. troops still are garrisoned outside of Reykjavik.

Iraq is not Iceland, Germany or South Korea - something McCain has acknowledged. But just as each war is different in its own way, all wars have some fundamental similarities. One of them is that the victorious nation is never able simply to pull up stakes and leave. Even unqualified successes - such as the reconstructions of Germany, Japan and South Korea - often require a commitment of forces for generations. There has never been any reason to believe Iraq would be different.

The key to McCain's "100 years" comment is his qualifier: "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." It is this crucial component that distinguishes military successes from failures.

A commitment to Iraq in which U.S. forces are being harmed for 100 years (or even 20 or 10) is not sustainable; such a situation would indicate the United States was not able to midwife a viable political environment. Iraq would then be a failure. John McCain knows that.

But if the Iraqi political infrastructure continues to coalesce, if the violence continues to trend downward, if the Iraqi military and police continue to assume larger and larger roles in their country's affairs, then a presence of U.S. troops in Iraq for a long duration is an exceptionally good outcome. It would signal that, despite all of the Bush administration's many failures, the Iraq project was not for naught.

McCain's "100 years" is not a commitment to "100 years of war," as Obama claims. It is simply another sign of McCain's seriousness and understanding of the realities of foreign affairs in general and Iraq in particular.

Obama's distortion of this remark, however, is the first sign that he may not be a serious-minded candidate.

One Last Thing:

For John McCain's original

"100 Years" comment: http://go.philly.com/100years

For U.S. troop deployments, 1950-2005: http://go.philly.com/ustroops

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Contact Jonathan V. Last at jlast@phillynews.com.