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.