Imagine Madeleine Albright coming at you with an M-16, and you’ll get the right image for the Center for a New American Security, a thinktank made up of right-wing and centrist Democrats who never met a surge they didn’t love.

Thus it’s no surprise that Tom Ricks, a former reporter and author who’s taken up residence at CNAS, has fired the opening gambit in what is likely to be a direct challenge to President Obama by the military, by conservatives and neoconservatives, by surge-lovers and empire builders, and others, to keep US forces in Iraq.

Ricks penned an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Extending Our Stay in Iraq,” as if the 98,000 troops there were business travelers asking the front desk for a late checkout. “Our stay”? He means, the US occupation of Iraq.

And Ricks pulls no punches. Obama should forget about his pledge to reduce US forces to 50,000 by August and to zero by the end of 2011. Instead, Ricks says, the troubling internal contradictions in Iraq — including Iran’s influence — means that the United States should “keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.”

In recent weeks the US military has been hinting that it’s thinking the same thing. A Post article yesterday entitled “U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal” said:

“The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month.”

Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, has dropped hints about sticking around, too. And Robert Gates, the Republican secretary of defense who just won’t seem to go away, told a press briefing on Tuesday: “We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq and we don’t see that, certainly, at this time.” At this time.

True enough, as I’ve been writing for weeks now (and for years, in fact, before that) Iran has vast and growing influence in Iraq, and it’s ever more likely that the Iraqi elections on March 7 will be rigged in favor of Iran’s friends among the religious Shia, including Prime Minister Maliki. But the last thing that the United States needs to is stay in Iraq and turn that country into a battlefield with Iran for control of the Persian Gulf. Obama’s best course is to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, even faster than the current timetable, if that can be done, and work hard on a diplomatic deal with Iran that would cover the nuclear file, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But when the surge-loving conservatives and the counterinsurgency cultists starting pressuring Obama on Afghanistan last summer, he caved. Even though Obama, so far, has said again and again that the Iraq withdrawal plan that he announced a year ago is written in stone, I don’t have any confidence that he’ll stick to it if, after the elections, the Iraqis try to settle post-electoral differences with guns and car bombs.

Interestingly, Marc Lynch — a far more sensible analyst on Iraq than Ricks — has come out in favor of keeping to the timetable. Like Ricks, Lynch also has a perch at CNAS. (Memo to Marc: Get out of there, quick!) In his Foreign Policy blog, Lynch writes:

“There’s been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to “do more” — the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently, has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash.”

So at CNAS, the record is: Sane, Lynch. Insane, Ricks. Stay tuned.