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msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/8/2005 12:33:26 PM ET 2005-06-08T16:33:26

I’m sitting here with a gloomy letter from Iraq, written by a high-ranking officer I cannot name in a branch of service I cannot name in a part of the country I cannot name. But trust me, because I trust him. Iraqis, he says, have no feel for or belief in the democracy we want to create, and our occupation is making them less, not more, capable of self-government.

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“Our eventual departure,” he worries, “will leave nothing but cosmetic structure here.” “Every mission,” he writes, “requires a conscious escape from the resignation that there is nothing here to win and every occasion to fail.”

Small miracles do happen – a child is saved, a generator is installed. There remain “possibilities.” But sullen eyes along the roadsides give this officer “the feeling that we have stayed too long but can not leave.”

You can dismiss this as understandable but misleading musings of an officer who has seen too many men killed, and who doesn’t see the “big picture.” But what exactly IS the big picture? That’s the dominant question as our next political cycle – the one that culminates in the 2008 election – begins.

Are we better off today ...
I’ve often said that George W. Bush’s decision to go to Iraq was one of the biggest and most consequential ever made by a president. Was it folly or shrewd foresight? Are we safer as a result, or more imperiled? Was the liberation of Iraq worth the death it caused, the money it cost and the hatred it engendered? What now? Wouldn’t leaving soon be worse than never having gone?

The outlines of this renewed political debate are beginning to emerge. Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ leading voice on foreign policy in the Senate, is going to give a speech soon that, he says, will set what amounts to a timetable for American disengagement. If we can’t meet the benchmarks in his timetable, then he will suggest that we get out.

You can dismiss Biden, if you want, as a guy who suddenly has decided that he wants to run for the Democratic nomination in ’08, and thus he has begun pandering to the anti-war crowd. But that’s just the point: the center of gravity on this issue is beginning to move. If Biden is willing to use the “W” word – withdrawal – other Democrats will feel free to question the war more openly and aggressively.

That looked too risky not long ago, when official Washington was reassured by -- even jubilant about -- the signs of incipient democracy sprouting as a result of our aggressive watering in the Middle East.

There was good news from everywhere: the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and, especially, Iraq. The bravery of Iraqis was inspiring, the memory of purple ink indelible.

Then the suicide bombings began in earnest, as Islamist terrorists seek to turn the entire Muslim Crescent into a West Bank. And while Americans love democracy, they are dubious about global programs to extend its reach if the path isn’t clear and the locals aren’t willing.

We had noble goals in Vietnam, but achieving them was too costly and the Vietnamese didn’t share them.

Sowing doubt
On Iraq, attitudes here were changing even before the latest Washington Post poll, which, for the first time, showed that a majority of Americans (52 percent) don’t think the war in Iraq has “contributed to the long-term security of the United States.”

Sowing further doubt is the prime objective of the suicide bombers slipping into Iraq from around the Muslim world. Killing Americans by killing yourself is a fashionable fast route to heaven. How are we safer when that idea spreads to the youth of Syria, Iran and who knows where else?

So what do we do now?

There is a school of thought that the answer lies in more American boots on the ground. If we had only put in more at the beginning, or so the theory goes, things would have gone more smoothly.

Maybe we can correct that mistake now. Forget it. The idea won’t fly politically. Part of my job is to travel the country talking to voters, and I can tell you that there is very little support for that notion. The Pentagon has enough trouble right now recruiting young men and women to the Armed Services as it is. Announce a doubling of the commitment to Iraq? All hell breaks loose. And at some point even a compliant Republican Congress is going to balk at the financial cost. Iraq is on the way to becoming the most expensive war we have ever fought.

Just as the unveiling of Deep Throat brought forth echoes of the Vietnam Era, so does the bleak news about Iraq. The rhetorical parallels are becoming eerie, even suffocating. The White House issues upbeat assessments deemed absurd by critics; senators return from “fact-finding” tours full of glum and frightening tales. The president declares that we can’t “cut and run” – not so subtly implying that anyone who suggests withdrawal is a traitorous weakling.

And the Democrats, facing a Republican president they regard as “imperial” (the word they used for Richard Nixon) grow increasingly hysterical. Howard Dean is unbound and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton – who began her political career as a staffer on an impeachment committee in 1974 – claims that “there has never been an administration… more intent upon consolidation and abusing power to further its own agenda.” Al Franken, talk show host and likely Democratic Senate candidate, suggests that Bush should be impeached. Even Sen. John Kerry is said to be considering the possibility.

But Democrats shouldn’t gloat. Voters are far – very far – from being convinced that candidate Clinton & Company possess the answers, on Iraq or anything else. The same Washington Post poll that contained gloomy Iraq numbers for Bush also showed that the Democrats had fallen to their lowest public approval rating ever.

The officer who wrote me from Iraq doesn’t have much use for either party, in fact. He just wants to get the job done and come home.

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