The Bush and Kerry campaigns enter the final full week of this dizzying, deadlocked race without having put on the table credible blueprints of what an electoral victory for either will mean for Iraq. The candidates are neglecting two flickering signs of change that should be nurtured rather than rushed past or trampled.
One is the taking root of an Iraqi political process that could yet outlast the terrorist assaults and the bureaucratic bungling, past and present, of the Bush administration that dominate the daily headlines.
The second encouraging sign comes from the United Nations: After great hesitation and internal controversy, the world body is making a serious, if still minimalist, effort to help Iraqis organize credible elections this January.
These developments do not instantly make Iraq a glass half full. But they are the kind of emerging trends that would have once been seized upon and made part of a durable U.S. foreign policy framework to balance resources against goals and to marshal America's friends against its enemies.
Containment was such a framework for the Cold War. January's elections in Iraq should offer either President Bush or President Kerry the opportunity of constructing a regional strategy that will protect a free choice made at the polls by Iraqis while allowing the start of a gradual drawing down of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
The key to achieving that outcome will be an American willingness to work with the Shiite majority that is likely to emerge as Iraq's dominant political power from a free and fair election. And the key to that key, as I have written so often, and so often in vain, is for Washington to trust Iraqis to run their own affairs.
The failure to do this has been the most constant fault line in Bush policy, beginning with the brutal dismissal of Jay Garner and the seven-member Iraqi provisional government he was preparing to name in May 2003. Lack of trust was prominent in the shaping of an occupation force under L. Paul Bremer that was not up to the enormous tasks set for it. And it surfaced in the U.S.-run selection of Ayad Allawi in June as interim prime minister, a manipulation undertaken with the complicity of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
While the gruesome beheadings and bomb blasts of terrorist networks have distracted the world's attention, a sophisticated political process has been taking shape around the proportional representation system the United Nations has chosen for the election in January of a national assembly that will draft a permanent constitution.
Allawi -- whose background as a one-time Saddam Hussein henchman and then a favorite of the CIA has led Iraqis to question whether he is the best possible representative of Iraqi democracy -- is putting together a "government coalition" list that essentially promises more of the same, to borrow a phrase from John Kerry.
The irrepressible Ahmed Chalabi -- now cleared of trumped-up counterfeiting charges that U.S. policymakers hoped would keep him from ever challenging Allawi -- is negotiating a competing list aimed at attracting the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Iraq's Kurdish minority. The Kurds will understandably join the list that guarantees them the most regional autonomy from Baghdad.
Will Allawi permit an election that a recent, U.S.-financed poll suggests that he would lose badly? Can the CIA-inspired policies and bureaucrats that brought Allawi to power in a rigged process be set aside by the next U.S. president if a Sistani-backed, Shiite-dominated list does win?
The most important statements that Kerry and Bush could make in this last week of verbiage would be to clear up these questions -- to set in concrete a commitment to holding and honoring January elections in Iraq. This could also lead to a fresh start with the United Nations as part of a broader, recast Persian Gulf strategy.
The big but underreported news on the U.N. front is that efforts by employee unions and some senior U.N. officials to get the world body to pull out of or delay the January elections have been rejected by Secretary General Kofi Annan and his tough-minded elections director, Carina Perelli.
Perelli told me last week that she saw no technical reasons for January elections to be delayed. About 600 registration centers -- including one in Fallujah -- are scheduled to open this week in Iraq.
Cold Warriors such as George Kennan and Paul Nitze, who died last week at age 97, knew how to turn such small events into the stuff of strategy. But the nation's current strategic impatience makes that approach much more difficult.
Ancient Greeks would have seen the timing of Nitze's death as a message from Olympus. If a nation allows speed, superficiality and a quest for novelty to dominate the way it thinks about serious problems such as Iraq and Islamic terrorism, the gods will conclude that country no longer has need of thinkers like Nitze.