Americans, wherever they may actually stand, love to present themselves as in the moderate middle of any debate, just as politicians regularly gravitate toward the “center,” no matter how far out it may happen to be. Recently, Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III, co-chairing the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission to advise a reluctant President on future Iraq policy, put himself firmly “between” policy poles. “There are,” he said, “alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of stay the course and cut and run.”

It’s easy enough to land in the moderate middle, between what Baker terms policy “extremes,” when on one side you only have to say “cut and run” and any respectable, inside-the-Beltway politician will promptly cut-and-skedaddle; while, on the other, the President, as at his delusional press conference Wednesday, is continuing to make “stay the course” sound like “jump off a cliff.” We don’t yet know exactly where the post-election policy proposals of Baker and his bipartisanly well-connected crew will fall, any more than we know what Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner meant when he insisted, on return from Iraq, that policy there was “drifting sideways” and that if things didn’t get better in a magical couple of months — post the midterm elections — no “options” should be “off the table.”

Of course, for neither Warner, nor Baker could those options possibly include “cut and run,” which, by its very self-description, is for cowards and fools, not dignified senators and well-appointed commissions. Where, then, does the moderate ground between the extremes of the present moment, that lovely center, actually lie? Whatever the dreams of critics of the war, withdrawal in any real form, phased or otherwise, is not likely to be the middle ground the new Washington opposition has in mind. Baker hinted at this Thursday night on the Lehrer News Hour when, while being cagey in a Margaret Warner interview, he nonetheless spoke of “initiatives or advice that Congress and the president could utilize in continuing the mission in Iraq.”

If we turn from Washington civilians to the military brass, recent days offered clues to what a revised, no-extremes, no cut-and-run, continue-the-mission policy might look like. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker announced that his service was gearing up — or as he put it making sure he had “enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot” – for four more years in Iraq at present levels (140,000+ troops). Meanwhile, in a tag-team news conference with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, George Casey, U. S. commanding general in Iraq, responded to a question about whether he needed more troops with his own cautious hint: “Right now, my answer is no. But we’re continuing to work things back there, and if I think I need more, I’ll ask for more and bring more in.”

“Right now,” of course, means “before the election,” a time when, while U.S. casualties soar and Iraqis die in their hundreds, you grit your teeth and, as Gen. Casey did, use the word “progress” eight times in a modest meeting with the press. (“I would also say that we continue to make progress with the Ministry of Interior and police forces etc…”)

So we’ve had our hint. While the “mission continues” in Iraq with the endless build-up of our huge bases — we still have, according to Rumsfeld, 55 of them, large and small — and the continuing construction of the most permanent-looking embassy on the planet (with its own anti-missile system) in downtown Baghdad, it begins to look one significant “between” position may prove to be lots more of the same. If so, it will be a position extreme in its refusal to face the obvious — that, for instance, wherever American troops go in Iraq (as in Baghdad right now), violence only escalates. The British Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the man responsible for British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, just put “staying the course” in the kind of blunt perspective we generally don’t hear in the U.S. The United Kingdom, he said, should “get ourselves out [of Iraq] sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems. We are in a Muslim country and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear.” Call that the real middle ground.