After nearly four years of military involvement in Iraq coupled with repeated assurances that victory was near, many Americans are understandably reluctant to give President Bush what he wants there -- more time.
In his Jan. 10 address to the nation announcing plans to send 21,500 additional troops to join the 130,000 already in Iraq, time was precisely what the president was asking for. Underlining his view of the importance of what happens there, he said the outcome would "determine the direction of the global war on terror and our safety here at home."
Bush's address was a departure from the promises of early and relatively easy victory that critics decried in some of his previous declarations. Earlier prescriptions for success had "failed," he admitted, and even his new approach to stabilizing the situation in Baghdad and other trouble spots wouldn't bring an early end to hostilities. "The year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice and resolve," he said.
Without setting a timetable, Bush insisted that the American commitment to Iraq is "not open-ended" and the Iraqi government must greatly expand the Iraqi army's role in the effort to defeat sectarian insurgents and terrorists if it wants continuing U.S. help.
But these qualifiers weren't nearly enough to appease congressional Democrats. They -- and apparently a substantial number of Republicans -- oppose the troop buildup and may even seek to block funding for it. Such a move could touch off a titanic political and even constitutional struggle.
From one point of view, the fundamental ethical principle for weighing American strategy in Iraq is simple: If you broke it, fix it. But there's no consensus on how to apply the principle to the murky facts. Does "fixing" Iraq call for the United States to stay put there or to get out? Answering that requires a heavy dose of prudential judgment with some fortune-telling thrown in.
One possible indicator of this moral uncertainty was the notably sketchy reference to Iraq by Pope Benedict XVI in his annual state-of-the-world address Jan. 8 to diplomats accredited to the Holy See.
Calling the Middle East "a source of great anxiety," the pope devoted most of a long paragraph to a relatively detailed analysis of relations between Israelis and Palestinians and the situation in Lebanon. He also called on Iran to make a "satisfactory response" to international calls for it not to develop nuclear weapons.
When it came to Iraq, however, Pope Benedict simply deplored the "appalling violence" there and expressed hope for "reconstruction and reconciliation" with no suggestions about how to achieve that goal. Nothing was said about the United States and what it should do.
Earlier, the pope sent a Christmas message to the Christians of the Middle East offering them as much encouragement as he could. With Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds involved in bloody strife, the Christian minority in Iraq has become the forgotten victim of the conflict. Many have died, and thousands have fled the country.
During a trip to the Middle East earlier this month, Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked how the United States can facilitate a "responsible transition."
"Each course of action, including current policies, ought to be evaluated in light of our nation's moral responsibility to help Iraqis to live with security and dignity in the aftermath of U.S. military action," he said in a statement.
He also laid out benchmarks for progress toward this transition, which included employment for Iraqis and political structures that can reduce violence and overcome division.
"At this critical juncture ... our leaders have a moral obligation to examine where things genuinely stand in pursuing justice and peace in Iraq ... and to evaluate the moral and human consequences of alternative courses of action," the statement said.
One of the few certainties is that debate over Iraq in the weeks and months ahead will be strongly colored by the elections of 2008. The Democrats hope to increase their new, slim majorities in both houses of Congress, and the Republicans yearn for a comeback.
Where to come down on Iraq is a particularly pressing question for the Senate's potential presidential contenders, including Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.). They approach the issue in full awareness that what they do and say will influence their chances of becoming Bush's successor.
Some analysts believe all parties to the domestic political debate -- not only the Democrats but also the president -- are unrealistic when it comes to how long at best it would take Iraq to achieve a reasonably stable political and social order.
Citing the example of countries like Yugoslavia and Congo where bloody civil wars have followed the end of decades-long dictatorships in the last 15 years, columnist Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post: "If Iraq is like the rest of the post-Cold War world, [the process of stabilization] will take six to 12 years, not six to 12 months."
"Will the United States want to be present, as one of the shaping forces, when that settlement is finally reached?" he asked.
Like just about everything else said about Iraq these days, that way of looking at it may or may not be correct. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that, regardless of what the United States does next, things almost certainly will get worse there before they will or even can get better.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.