Steve Chapman

What this debacle suggests is that we are rapidly running out of options. Says Brookings Institution security analyst Michael O'Hanlon, "One of the last big strategic changes we could imagine, we have now tried, and we have not seen any progress."

The administration continues to hope that with enough time and training, Iraqi security forces will be up to the job of providing security. But as time has gone on, the army has continued to underachieve.

MIT defense scholar Barry Posen noted in an article earlier this year in the Boston Review that the insurgents don't seem to need endless handholding to thrive -- even though, unlike the Iraqi military, they have "no large training bases, no safe place to organize, no secure electronic command-and-control network, and only the weaponry they can obtain covertly." What's the difference in the performance of the two? "Motivation," he says. Motivation, unfortunately, is something we can't manufacture.

The real U.S. strategy at this stage is to hold on and hope for a miracle -- which is not good enough to justify our continuing sacrifice of lives and money. Withdrawing now, it's true, may plunge Iraq into even worse turmoil, with terrible consequences for its people and potential dangers for us. But noting the risks of failure doesn't tell us whether there is any way to succeed.

That is the question Robert Gates and the president will have to confront, without illusions. If your leg has gangrene, there is nothing to be gained from postponing the amputation, and much to be lost. But it takes a grownup to tell you that.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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