Public opinion polls now indicate that a clear majority of the American people no longer support the war in Iraq, 59% want to pull out immediately or on a definitive timetable, and 56% believe the war is not worth it.
Is there any chance the Bush team will throw in the towel before the end of this year and make a clear decision to pull the troops out?
A year ago, early in the presidential race, my educated guess was that such a decision would be made before the end of 2005, whether the president won re-election or Senator John Kerry succeeded him in the White House.
The “educated” part of my guess was that the driving force of the insurgency in Iraq was not religious, but purely political. I assumed the Iraqi nationalists would not relent until the occupying power was gone and with it the “government” that the US was installing to serve its imperialist designs.
“We have reached a tipping point,” Ronald Spector, a military historian at George Washington University, told USA Today`s Susan Page. “Even some of those who thought it was a great idea to get rid of Saddam [Hussein] are saying, `I want our troops home.`”
Representative Walter Jones, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, who was among the most enthusiastic supporters of the war, came out last week for withdrawal, citing the casualty level, which over the weekend reached 1700 killed and 12,000 seriously injured.
In another poll, nearly 75% called the casualty numbers unacceptable, up from 28% several months ago.
Those on either side of the issue express multiple reasons for arguing “exit now” or “stay the course,” but among serious analysts the question comes down to what would happen once the US departed.
The hawks, who may or may not acknowledge the war was a mistake to begin with, argue that the Baghdad government now in place will not be able to prevent being overwhelmed by the insurgency and a bloody civil war if the 140,000 US troops are not there to maintain what security does exist.
The doves, for the first time since the occupation began two years ago, are voicing the idea that the US presence in and of itself is the chief reason for the insurgency.
They argue that a fixed timetable for a complete withdrawal would change the behaviour of the insurgents and lead to a more favourable outcome.
Former Senator George McGovern, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1972 as the Democratic nominee in opposition to the Vietnam war, last week proposed a solution tied to the president`s position that the US would only stay as long as it took to train Iraqis to maintain order by themselves.
With some logic, McGovern noted that the Pentagon now says some 40,000 Iraqis have been fully trained, which suggests that many of the US troops can be brought home, with others following as more Iraqis are trained.
If such a policy were adopted and followed, the nationalist leaders of the insurgency would be motivated to encourage their followers to help increase the number of trained security forces instead of killing them.
It is not likely the Bush administration would pick up on the idea, at least not yet. It continues to believe it can pull the strings in the interim government for the months that it will take for a new constitution to be written, one that will satisfy the various religious blocs.
The constitution is supposed to be ready by 15 August, but that now appears to be an impossible deadline, with the Shia and Kurd blocs unable to find Sunni leaders capable of concluding a deal.
That is, there may be Sunni religious leaders willing to work on a constitution, but the insurgents are nationalist and want the occupying forces out before there is any talk of a new constitution and new elections.
Without a clear, fixed process to satisfy that demand, American military commanders in the field are now surmising that it might take several years for an Iraqi regime to evolve in a way that permits departure of all US troops.
If the American electorate has now gone over the “tipping point“ on its support for the Iraq involvement, it must be clear to the foreign-policy establishment – political leaders of both parties – that time will run out on its patience long before the president`s lame-duck term ends in 2008.
What that means is increased problems in meeting the manpower needs of the US Army and Marine Corps.
Young men and women, who would normally volunteer to serve in the armed forces – given the financial incentives being offered – are being discouraged by their families, teachers, etc. In six months, there will be a recruitment crisis.
Once it appeared the war might have been undertaken without justification, a growing number of Americans of the kind that supported previous wars on behalf of national security are coming to see Iraq as a black hole.
They are also opening up to the idea that perhaps George McGovern is right, and that instead of a bloodbath and civil war following a US exit, the political class in Iraq will find it relatively easy to work things out for themselves.
In his public appearances over the weekend, McGovern pointed out that the bitter-enders predicted a bloodbath in Vietnam 30 years ago should the US throw in the towel; the political losers in South Vietnam rather quickly came to terms with Hanoi.
And today, not only is Vietnam a peaceful country and increasingly a prosperous one, it also has a diplomatic and trading relationship with the United States.
Of course, there may be some unexpected event or series of events that rescue the president`s objectives in Iraq between now and the end of 2005, but my educated guess seems to be holding up so far and the known forces we see point to an exit strategy, not one of staying the course.
JUDE WANNISKI is a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, expert on supply-side economics and founder of Polyconomics, which helps to interpret the impact of political events on financial markets.