Set a deadline that lets Iraqis prove what they want

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There is a process in American political life by which the unthinkable becomes the inevitable and the inevitable becomes, inevitably, a big mess. Central to this process is a peculiarly American inability to ask, let alone answer, the vital questions of any endeavor: an inability empowered by that peculiarly American attitude, "We don't have to understand the world, we only need to know about us."

This is how we got into Vietnam. This is how we left. This is how we got into Iraq. It would be tragic, were we to leave the same way.

In the spring of 2002, a year before the event, I became one of America's first conservatives to oppose the Iraq war. I did so for so many hard military, political, and economic reasons that they amounted to a moral reason. This would be a hideous failure of prudence, that oft-extolled conservative art of applying general principles to specific situations. As a conservative, I knew that we should not mortgage our future to the secular redemption of other countries and civilizations. And although I supported the Bush Doctrine, when I started hearing the phrase, "strategic preemption," I got the same uh-oh as when I first heard, "the fetus ex utero."

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It's been a lonely three years. But now that Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania has started his firestorm for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, I find myself opposing his prescription. We're still failing to ask the vital question: Do the people of Iraq really want what we're offering?

Forget the elections, important though they were. Forget the polls - or at least remember taqiya, an Arabic word denoting, among other things, the right and duty of Muslims to lie to infidels. Forget the 3.5 million cellphones we've reportedly provided, or how many Iraqi battalions may now be able to tie their boots without American assistance, or any of the "metrics" by which we measure success. Take a look at the vital matter.

The Iraqi people, courtesy of hundreds of ill-guarded ancien régime weapons dumps and a thriving import trade, are among the most heavily armed on earth. The people of Iraq know who and where the bad guys are. This insurgency would have ended in a month, had the Iraqis chosen to wage a people's war against them. They did not. The silence of the armed is the silence of consent.

Put differently: This strange double helix of insurgency and incipient civil war will not be won by us. It will be won if, and only if, the Iraqi government and the scores of (illegal) militias that suffuse the country can find ways to defeat the insurgency while avoiding civil war, then sort out their peacetime relationships later. Therefore, the United States should set a deadline, but not a deadline for withdrawal. The next nine months should show whether the Iraqi people want their new government, and their new freedom, enough to wage a people's war for it. The US should give them that chance, with the clear understanding that next summer we will judge whether or not their commitment justifies ours. If it does, we press on. If it does not, we leave.

Toward that end, all serious and honorable critics of the war should stand down until late next summer. Vietnam protest was, by and large, a carnival superimposed upon a tragedy. We need no more carnivals. But if there is to be another carnival - a circus composed of preening celebrities and wannabes, calculating politicians, high-dudgeon radicals, the blame-America-first crowd, and all who lust for American defeat - let it be seen for what it is.

But a silence of today's serious and honorable dissidents would not mean consent. Should it happen that the Iraqi people, for whatever reasons, do not want what we have so clumsily offered, or if they do, it's time to make Iraq a fundamental issue of the 2006 election. Increasingly, President Bush falls victim to the Year-Six Curse. (The last president to serve more than six years without a major meltdown was Teddy Roosevelt.) Under such circumstances, year-six elections can occasion major political shifts. We may be overdue, perhaps for the greatest course change since 1918.

And a serious 2006 election might have another benefit. We get into mess after mess because we believe that what we know about ourselves matters more than knowing the world. Perhaps it's time to ask whether we know ourselves as well as we think we do. We are a good people. But the things we do are not always just right because we're the ones doing them.

Perhaps, while considering what the people of Iraq want, we might also spend some time on ourselves.

Philip Gold is author of "Take Back the Right." His next book, "The Coming Draft?" will be published by Presidio in 2006.

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