Note to self (and America): Guard your options

A recent column by Jonathan Finer in The Washington Post highlighted an essential truth about the Iraq war that isn't getting enough attention: "I think we now have a lot of lousy choices."

Finer was quoting Connecticut senatorial candidate Ned Lamont, who made the assertion last month at Yale Law School. After a foreign policy address, Mr. Lamont was asked what might happen in Iraq if his call to withdraw US forces was carried out. According to Mr. Finer, "Lamont stumbled through a vague, but candidly off- message, response" that ended up nailing our dilemma squarely on its head.

Too much of the Iraq debate, Finer believes, is being reduced to "stay the course" or "send more troops" versus "pull out" or "set a deadline," and this creates the illusion of a simple decision. After we decide, then what? Regardless of which policy is followed, Iraq still presents us with lousy choices, and few candidates seem willing to tackle them.

All of which brings me to one of my personal rules for everyday living that also applies to entire nations: Whenever a crisis looms, try to maintain a reservoir of options, and be cautious about doing anything that will shrink the pool significantly.

Years ago, I had a water problem that originated on a neighbor's property. When I asked him to fix it, he was reluctant, so I talked to my lawyer, another advocate of keeping options open and avoiding ultimatums. "Try a compromise," he advised. "Legally it's his responsibility, but if you offer to split the cost it gets solved right now and you're done. You'll end up paying me a lot more if you go to court, and it could drag on and on." The offer worked. If it hadn't, we had three or four backup offers ready to put in play.

Politicians and pundits can argue forever about whether Saddam Hussein needed to be toppled and whether the world is a safer place with him out of power. But no one can deny that sending troops to Iraq swept a lot of options off the table. If we could turn back the clock, it would be interesting to consider alternative scenarios that might have advanced our interests while avoiding the enormous damage that's been inflicted on Iraqi cities, our armed forces, and the US budget.

The money issue is especially compelling. No one knows how high the final price tag for the war in Iraq will be, and few in Congress would even dream of suggesting a spending cap right now. It's a blank check until the troops are out of danger. I often wonder what all those tax dollars could have purchased if we had spent more time before the war to consider less destructive options.

But the clock only moves forward, and our choices in Iraq are still lousy. This is why it's important to guard your supply of options. It's a bad feeling to find out the ones you discarded were valuable after all. Even worse is the fact that once a good option is gone, it's almost impossible to go back and retrieve it.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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