We're a pragmatic lot, we Americans. Or would cautious be the word? Those who prefer clarity in public policy often seem doomed -- with blessed exceptions like the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 -- to witness no end of philosophical hemming, hawing, stammering and foot-dragging.
Now and then, as it happens, some of this stuff works to general advantage. Iraq comes to mind.
A New York Times/CBS News poll published as Gen. David Petraeus sat down to give Congress his considered viewpoint on the war shows just 22 percent saying the U.S. "should withdraw all of its troops within the next year regardless of what happens in Iraq after the troops leave." An almost equivalent number -- 20 percent -- want us to fight on to victory.
What about adherents of the, shall we say, middle view? These -- 56 percent strong -- say the U.S. should "withdraw some troops but leave some to train Iraqi forces, conduct raids against terrorist groups, and protect American diplomats."
Now the way I add that up is, 78 percent of Americans reject calls by the "netroots" and, mostly, the left wing of the Democratic Party to skedaddle from Iraq with our tail between our legs, letting the devil take the hindmost.
"Politically speaking," the Times summed up, "the poll indicated that Americans favored a flexible approach to Iraq as opposed to unbending positions." I might strengthen that point: For politicians to choose defeat instead of victory or honorable disengagement wouldn't make the great majority of voters precisely happy. Defeatist politicians, take note.
The politicians who can't wait to hand Iraq over to suicide bombers, militias and the Iranians are hard to understand save in ideological terms. They hate the war. Ending the war is all they want. Period.
That the out-now-ers mobilize even as many sympathizers as they do underlines the extraordinary nature of the Iraq war, a conflict whose like is unknown in all of world history, including the history of the Vietnam '60s.
Even to have imagined what we know now about the capabilities of homicidal maniacs acting in the name of a world religion might have slowed down, or even deflected, the march to war. Alas, we learned the hard and bloody way -- like those Confederates who found out eventually that a single Southerner couldn't lick 10 Yankees. Similarly, in 1914, the German General Staff thought that through executing the so-called Schlieffen plan German troops could roll up the French army in a matter of weeks. Nein.
In war (as sometimes in life generally), the problem seems to be that what you wish you had known at the outset turns out to be the very thing you didn't, and perhaps couldn't, know.
What does that mean -- that you get a pass on finishing the job you come to wish you hadn't undertaken to begin with? A large majority of Americans seem to see matters otherwise.
If total victory, World War II-style, seems unlikely to most, nearly 60 percent nevertheless see a continuing need and obligation to bring about as advantageous a U.S. exit as possible. Not that victory is a prospect wholly out of sight for the world's most powerful nation. Still, what matters is to make the best of an episode likely to leave Americans divided for decades. Eminently, in Iraq's case, that means not running shrieking from the battlefield in response to calls all too easily interpreted as designed for political advantage.
That at least a few defeatists -- say, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul? -- feel authentically defeated is a possibility no one can deny. That other politicians wear the mantle of defeatism at least partly to make their opponents look bad, here's the question maybe: Why?
So-and-so (fill in the blank) hopes voters will reward him for helping his, and their, country to a military drubbing? I know -- don't give politicians undue credit for sanity. Are they, nonetheless, this far gone in unreality? Heaven help us, if so.