The big muddy

June 16, 2005

ENTHUSIASM for the war effort back in 2003 led Rep. Walter B. Jones to demand that the House cafeteria use the term "freedom fries." The North Carolina Republican says he regrets it now. His ardor was misplaced, he says; there was no justification for the war. This week he is seeking backers for a congressional resolution that would endorse a firm withdrawal date for American troops in Iraq.

A Gallup Poll just out suggests that 60 percent of Americans are on Representative Jones' wavelength and would like to see a pullout, or at least a pullback. More than half -- 56 percent -- say the war was not worth fighting.

Yet U.S. Army officers acknowledge that it will take years to train a competent Iraqi armed force, capable of defending itself and establishing security. President Bush says America will stay in Iraq until that job is done, but it's a real question whether Americans will give him that much time.

An early withdrawal would have serious negative consequences. Iraq would be in danger of exploding into civil war; jihadists would claim they had beaten the American infidels; many Iraqis would feel abandoned by the power that came in and wrecked their country; other Middle Eastern regimes would worry about American steadfastness; the violence could spread to Iran, which could make everything worse. And there's this: The United States would lose control of Iraq's oil fields, the existence of which made Iraq a much more central concern to American policy-makers in the prelude to the war than it otherwise would have been.

But a protracted stay by U.S. troops might simply postpone all these consequences, and in the meantime stir up other troubles. America is not restoring its image in the Muslim world, and every day that American soldiers remain in Iraq inspires more resentment and more recruiting opportunities for Islamist fighters. The occupation there severely limits American options elsewhere in the world. And every day the toll of dead and wounded Americans rises.

The question is pretty straightforward. What's worse? Staying or going?

The violence in Iraq is heading for another one of its periodic peaks. Vice President Dick Cheney says that's a sign that the insurgency is in its "final throes." Top administration officials have used that line before. It makes us wonder: Does Mr. Cheney really believe that? Or does he merely hope it might be true? Or does he figure he can keep getting away with saying it even though it's obviously not true? A "yes" answer to any one of those questions suggests that the administration's Iraq policy is on the verge of bankruptcy, or, if you will, in its final throes. That, alone, makes a powerful argument in favor of Mr. Jones' proposal.

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