Barack Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East and Europe caused a number of disparate reactions, even among Republicans, who charged Obama with being anything between audacious and presumptive to wrong-headed and naïve. Equally audacious, the most telling reaction, in the language of Wall Street, came from George Bush’s insistence on a “time horizon” in Iraq.

McCain, who previously complained that Obama hadn’t been to Iraq “in years”–his last trip was in January 2006–was now whining that Obama’s July 15 Iraq speech preceded his visit and that there was a problem with articulating his vision before seeing the devastation one more time. More likely, McCain was jealous that Obama’s New York Times op-ed, “My Plan for Iraq,” had been published the previous day while his was rejected.

In that piece, Obama noted, “We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months.” That, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sounded like “the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”

Forced to offer nuance, the Bush White House issued this statement July 18: “In the area of security cooperation, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals–such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.”

Politicians and pundits alike struggled to find concrete meaning behind his invocation of the term “time horizon.”

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sees no distinction between a “time horizon” and a “timetable.” The Los Angeles Times reported Levin as saying that Bush is “now apparently willing to accept what he repeatedly has told a majority in both houses of Congress was unacceptable regarding Iraq: a commitment to transition U.S. forces from combat to a limited ‘overwatch’ role, focused on training and counter-terrorism operations, and a ‘time horizon’ for completing this transition.”

Others insist that without specific dates, this is no concession.

The Washington Post reported Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior political adviser to Maliki, as saying that negotiators were still hashing out the details of troop cuts and that the Iraqi government wants specific timelines governing the stages of an eventual full US withdrawal of combat forces. “There are two principles that determine the military relationship: no permanent bases and no permanent existence,” al-Rikabi said. “In such a way, there should be a timetable for withdrawal.”

Aides to the Bush Administration argued that the announcement of a general time horizon is consistent with Bush’s position that troop levels could be reduced in Iraq as the security conditions on the ground improved and as Iraqi troops become better prepared.

Yet other political insiders suggest that Bush’s words had more to do with internal Iraqi politics than anything else. The Washington Post reported that some aides privately said that the Iraqi government needed the statement to show the Iraqi public that US forces would be leaving, while simultaneously limiting risks from troop withdrawal.

The close proximity of so many contradictory statements caused a fair amount of confusion. Did Bush concede? What did he concede? And what is a time horizon, anyway?

Of course, it is possible to both move a little closer to Obama’s position without surrendering to the Iraqi government’s repeated request for withdrawal; the last resort of acknowledging a problem while not fixing it has been a hallmark of this Administration–a page out of the Rovian playbook, right after “deny everything.”

Regardless of the motivation, “time horizon” are the two most honest and telling words uttered by the Administration on the question of withdrawal.

If taken at its roots in the field of finance and investment, a time horizon is the duration of time over which an investment is held before it is liquidated. Time horizons can be as short as seconds, as in the case of an options trader, and can be as long as decades, for long-term investors. The length of the time horizon is dependent on the investor’s individual objectives–there is no “right” time frame.

The term “time horizon” is a true measure of how Iraq was viewed by the Bush Administration from the start: a financial (and political) investment. The return has been manifold: a second presidential term; a justification for being recklessly hawkish; accepted price-gouging by contractors; an important satellite for the American empire project; and rising oil profits for giants like Exxon Mobile, which yesterday reported the best quarterly profits ever for a corporation. Given the lack of details on the time horizon, the Bush Administration has one foot in and one foot out and has to decide whether or not it is time to liquidate. Leave too soon and you show Obama was right; stay too long and your investment will have diminishing returns.

But one country’s cynical investment strategy is another country’s bankruptcy. Our $10 trillion debt is increasing at the average rate of $1.72 billion a day. We’re paying $4 per gallon on average at the pump. Household grocery basics like milk and eggs are up as much as 40 percent. And the $15 billion airline bailout in 2001 hasn’t provided any relief to travelers, who can often travel more freely outside the US borders than within them.

Evenly distributed, the burden of national debt is more than $30,000 for each of us. But as Bush leaves office, where is the time horizon that bails us out?