Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) ratcheted up the debate on national security last weekend with an ad asking the following question: "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?" Although it was aimed at Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.), Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) responded strongly: "I would be the one most qualified to exercise the kind of judgment necessary to address a national security crisis."

The general election debate will feature national security and Iraq. And as the first nominee, John McCain could control the terms of at least the early debate.

Surprisingly George Friedman, the CEO of private intelligence provider Stratfor, says: "Iraq may have a smaller role in the election than many think."

Friedman points to white papers Obama has on his Web site that clearly state Obama's position:
"Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. Obama will make it clear that we will not build any permanent bases in Iraq. He will keep some troops in Iraq to protect our embassy and diplomats; if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda."
Friedman thinks Obama will move to the center downplaying the talk of withdrawal in a general election. Certainly, Obama has played up his judgment on not wanting to go to war and would try to deflect the "experience" attacks from McCain in this manner.

Clinton has a similar position to Obama. The New York Sun recently reported that Clinton wanted the author of the "surge" strategy to advise her campaign on military affairs. Nevertheless, she has said she would sit down with her military's joint chiefs of staff in the first days and would ask for a safe plan for withdrawal. She, too, has hedged on the question of total troop withdrawal by favoring troops to protect the embassy in Baghdad and to deter any revival of al Qaeda.

Stratfor's Friedman notices a simple difference exists between McCain and the Democrats -- "a timeline."

Despite Friedman's point of view, McCain has taken delight in pointing out the Democrats have chosen to "wave the white flag" in Iraq. McCain states on his campaign Web site: "America's ultimate strategy is to give Iraqis the capabilities to govern and secure their own country." McCain has made it clear he wants to stay until this condition of victory has been achieved.

McCain showed his general election hand Tuesday night in accepting the nomination:
"The next President must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide; destabilizing the entire Middle East; enabling our adversaries in the region to extend their influence and undermine our security there."
Those adversaries could be defined as Iran and al Qaeda.

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history and author of the blog Informed Comment, says: "McCain has missed the point on the struggle in Iraq, similar to the mistake McCain made with Vietnam." Both struggles had more to do with nationalism rather than with communism or terrorism. For example, Vietnamese communists showed their nationalism by their conflicts with China.

Looking back at history, the Domino theory (If communism was allowed to go unchecked, states would fall like dominos) has been discredited. It appears as if some want to revive a new domino scenario where Islamic terrorists, like al Qaeda, spread a form of radical Islam.

Last week, McCain and Obama tussled over al Qaeda in Iraq. McCain criticized Obama's statements on troop withdrawal and returning to strike al Qaeda bases. "I've got news. Al Qaeda is in Iraq; it's called 'al Qaeda in Iraq.'" Obama responded the same day with: "But I have some news for John McCain. There was no such thing as al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

Cole sides with Obama on the matter. "Al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before 2003. In fact, all of the states near Iraq -- Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey -- fear the specter of al Qaeda taking hold in their countries," he says. "Jordanian intelligence, for example, assisted the U.S. find Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." Al-Zarqawi was the Jordanian citizen who created al Qaeda in Iraq and was later killed in 2006 by U.S. Air Force missiles.

Cole and Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, agree the influence of AQI has been overplayed in Iraq. Korb shared this bit of local Iraqi color: "I've never met an Iraqi who doesn't smoke, and al Qaeda opposes tobacco."

Even Gen. David Petraeus commented last fall that al Qaeda in Iraq "has been significantly reduced and its actions degraded."

Cole and Korb also indicate very little progress has taken place in Iraq in spite of the surge. Cole says the most recent legislative achievements mentioned by McCain do not mark progress. "The De-Baathification law has been denounced by Sunni's and could potentially force 30,000 of them out of work from current Iraqi government," he says. "The Province law, calling for elections on October 1, was rejected by the Iraqi President's Council." So, Democracy also appears to be out the window.

Korb points as well to a lack of progress on security by the Iraqi government. Noting that the Iraqi Minister of Defense Abdul Qadir recently visited the U.S. and said Iraq won't be responsible for their internal security until 2012 or protect their borders until 2018.

Friedman expressed concern about the influence of Iran, saying that with the U.S. no longer in Iraq, Iran would become the dominant military power in the region, and would be able to threaten the largest oil fields in the world. "They would be a short four days march from Saudi Arabia," he says.

It is true that Iran's stature would be increased, as noted in a statement from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from last summer:
"Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap, with the help of neighbors and regional friends like Saudi Arabia, and with the help of the Iraqi nation."

The threat of an Iranian attack appears overblown. Saddam Hussein found himself in a similar position in 1991 when trying to invade Kuwait. The U.S. and 34 other countries quickly responded to those attacks in Operation Desert Storm. It took seven days to beat back Hussein. Cole says: "Iran has shown no intention of increasing their influence by invading and ruling other countries similar to Saddam's ambitions." Clearly, the U.S. and our European allies have shown more concern about Iran's nuclear capacity.

Cole and Friedman argue that the interesting thing to follow if the U.S. were to withdraw is what would be the fate of the Sunnis? Presently, Sunnis make up 20% of Iraq's population. Cole confirms genocide remains a real concern if the Sunnis choose to oppose a government likely to be dominated by the Shia.

"The debate over Iraq has to be over the opportunity cost of achieving other critical goals for the U.S.," Korb says. He co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post noting a Democratic president would reap benefits from repositioning the $10 billion a month cost currently spent in Iraq.

The future of Iraq has many moving parts. I think McCain will focus mostly on the emotional issue of surrender, while a Democrat might be forced to follow Korb's advice on debating costs because of an expensive domestic agenda. Moreover, events in the region may also influence the debate as the environment in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is highly volatile.