It all came out the way it was supposed to. America showed the world it could have an election shorn of front-page accusations of ballot fixing. Horrible senators like George Allen and Conrad Burns lost narrow races. The Republicans got a pasting. A man who called Alan Greenspan "a political hack" and George Bush "a liar" will be Senate majority leader. A woman elected to Congress with the help of thousands of San Franciscan homosexuals, some of them married by Mayor Gavin Newsom, will be Speaker. Who wouldn't want Harry Reid instead of Bill Frist, or Nancy Pelosi instead of fatty Hastert? It's a nice change.

            It's also the role of elections in properly run Western democracies to remind people that things won't really change at all. You can set your watch by the speed with which the new crowd lowers expectations and announces What is Not To Be Done. Nowhere is there an item on the Democrats' "must do" list saying, "Reverse plunge toward fascism. Rescind Patriot Act. Dump the Military Commissions Act. Restore habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights." Pelosi says impeachment is off the table.

            "Bold new vision" these days means Pelosi pledging a drive to notch up the minimum wage. I don't know about the vineyard, hotel and restaurant that Pelosi co-owns, but the effective minimum wage here in Humboldt county, northern California, is about $10 an hour, which is what you have to promise a young person to mow the yard. The payout rises rapidly to $13 an hour if you want to buy the tyke's loyalty for return visits. Maybe on some slave plantation in southern Florida attainment of the federal minimum wage is part of the American Dream, but elsewhere we have to talk about a living wage, which is something altogether different.

            But who cares! No one believes the Democrats are ever going to mess with the system, and that's not why the voters put them back in charge of Congress. They want America out of Iraq. Pronto, just like Rep. Jack Murtha said it should, this time last year. Nancy Pelosi knows that, which is why to her great credit and the chagrin of the Washington Post as well as Fox News she backed Jack Murtha against pro-war Steny Hoyer to be House Majority Leader and said that Jane Harmon shouldn't chair the House Intelligence Committee. But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Hardly was her Murtha endorsement out of Pelosi's mouth before Harry Reid, who'd been calling for "redeployment" of U.S. troops out of Iraq "within the next few months" told his fellow Democrats in the Senate that the issue of what to do in Iraq shouldn't be raised till James Baker and his Iraq Study Group issue their report.

            Optimists somehow imagine the Baker Report will explode excitingly under the war's partisans and blow them sky-high. It'll do nothing of the sort. There'll be paragraphs of soggy language about the promise of democratic governance and the rule of law in Iraq, raised fingers of warning about the perils of failure, acres of statesmanlike talk about the need for multilateral involvement. Probably, Baker and Co. think the United States should quit Iraq. But they can't think of a way of accomplishing this without jump-starting charges across the next two years that America is cutting and running and is this any way to run an empire? McCain's saying that already.

            There is a ferocious battle in the offing. On the one side is the majority of Americans sickened of the war in Iraq, who spoke clearly on Nov. 7. Their prime institutional ally is the uniformed military, which was against the war from the start, and which gave Jack Murtha the briefings that emboldened him to take his stand last year. Their political champions of the hour are Pelosi and Murtha. Their most plausible presidential candidate, Russell Feingold, has just said he won't run for the nomination.

            On the other side are the massed legions of cold war liberalism, of which the notorious neo-cons -- now denouncing Bush and Rumsfeld -- are but one battalion. Remember the origins of the neocons, as shock troops of the Israel lobby. Back in the mid-'70s, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Albert Wohlstetter and the others saw the United States facing impending defeat in Vietnam, and feared that the McGovernite peaceniks would rot the resolve of the Democratic Party to stand behind Israel. So they fanned out into the Committee on the Present Danger, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and stoked up the furnaces of the new cold war and greased the wheels of the Reagan campaign.

            The apex neocons are a pretty discredited lot these days, but there are legions like them spread across the nation's think tanks and policy institutes, all imbued with exactly the same fears that reverberated across the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Commentary, and the New Republic a generation ago: that America's "resolve" will soften; that there will be accommodation with Iran; that Israel will be abandoned. And, in fact, such fears are now more vivid. Thirty years ago, the weight of the Israel lobby wasn't being excoriated by mainstream professors from Harvard and Chicago. Thirty years ago, respectable professors like Tony Judt weren't publicly pillorying the Anti Defamation League. Thirty years ago, the name of Israel, blowing apart children in Beit Hanoun and Gaza didn't stink in as many nostrils as it does today.

            So the stakes are very high, and the party of permanent war -- represented at its purest distillation in the form of senators like Joe Biden and congressmen like Rahm Emanuel -- are regrouping for a counter-attack, their numbers refreshed by a phalanx of incoming blue dog Democrats. The Democratic foreign policy establishment cannot and will not tolerate the notion of Cut and Run in Iraq. Expect reassertions of the essential nobility of the attack that ousted Saddam Hussein, a deprecation of the destruction of Iraq as a society, a minimization of the outrages committed by U.S. forces. Expect a fierce campaign -- spearheaded by Democrats and the surviving neocons, to wage a "better" war. Expect a presidential campaign waged among warmongers, from Clinton through McCain by way of Giuliani. The voters spoke up, but that's the last chance they'll get, at least at the ballot box, for another two years.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.