“What are we getting into here?” asked the sergeant from the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, stationed north of Baghdad. “The war is supposed to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn’t in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?”

The questions that sergeant put to a Washington Post reporter are ones our commander in chief had better begin to address.

For less than three months after the fall of Baghdad, we have lost almost as many men in Iraq as we did in three weeks of war. One U.S. soldier is now dying there every day.

“Mission Accomplished,” read the banner behind President Bush as he spoke from the carrier deck of the Lincoln. But if the original mission – to oust Saddam and end the mortal threat of his weapons of mass destruction – is “accomplished,” why are we still there?

What is our new mission? What are the standards by which we may measure success? What will be the cost in blood and treasure? When can we expect to turn Iraq back over to the Iraqis? Or is ours to be a permanent presence, as in postwar Germany and Japan?

If that sergeant does not know what he is doing there, it is because his commander in chief has left him, and us, in the dark. And if the president does not begin soon to lay out the case for why we must keep 150,000 men in Iraq, the American people will begin to demand they be brought home. Already, one poll shows that 44 percent of the nation finds the present level of U.S. casualties “unacceptable.”

This is not 1963. Americans no longer have the same patience or trust in government we had when JFK took us into Vietnam. We are no longer willing to have Americans die in open-ended wars for unexplained ends. Dean Rusk’s familiar mantra, “We are there, and we are committed,” is no longer enough.

When the United States lost 241 U.S. Marines in the bombing of the Beirut barracks 20 years ago, and 18 Army Rangers in the “Blackhawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, Americans demanded we get out. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton hastily did.

As has been written here many times, Americans are lousy imperialists. We are uninterested in ruling and reforming other peoples if they appear to want us out of their lives. Nor are we willing to shed American blood for visions of empire dancing in the heads of Potomac pundits.

This week, six British soldiers were killed – three executed – after surrendering to Iraqi civilians enraged over intrusive house searches that they believe dishonored them and their women. This was in the Shia region of southern Iraq, which had been thought to be pacified.

One is reminded of Yitzhak Rabin’s remark after the invasion of southern Lebanon had ignited the peaceful population there: “We have let the Shia genie out of the bottle.”

On their visit to Baghdad, Sens. Lugar and Biden warned the U.S. Army might have to remain in Iraq five years. But Americans are not going to tolerate five years, or even two years, of guerrilla war without a better explanation as to exactly what vital interest of ours requires us to stay in Iraq and fight this war.

Moreover, there is every indication the security situation is getting worse. The incident in the south is but one example. The heavy-handed but natural reaction of U.S. soldiers to being ambushed and sniped at and killed every day is another. Invading homes searching for weapons, rousting out and roughing up Iraqi men, and patting down their women is a sure way to antagonize a fighting people.

Lest we forget, among the “Intolerable Acts” that led to our own revolution was the “Quartering Act,” where Bostonians had to provide shelter for British troops sent to pacify the city after Sam Adams’ tea party down at the harbor.

We are told the United States cannot walk away from Iraq now, or it would descend into chaos. That may be true. But if chaos is one alternative, another is a no-win war such as Israel is today fighting against the Palestinians. And the chances of that are daily rising.

A recent U.S. strike in the west turned up the bodies of Saudis and Syrians who had come to fight Americans, as their fathers went to Afghanistan to fight Russians. Moreover, U.S. pressure on Iran to permit inspections of its nuclear facilities – or U.S. pre-emptive strikes – would surely be answered by the kind of Iranian aid to and instigation of the Shias in Iraq that Tehran gave to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Hezbollah, after years of guerrilla war, drove the Israelis out of their country.

President Bush had best begin devising an exit strategy for U.S. troops, before our enemies succeed with theirs.


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