Geoffrey Wheatcroft

"QANDARY for the Democrats," said the newsreader early on Thursday on BBC Radio's World Service. The quandary for those Democrats on Capitol Hill is whether they should continue to support the war in Iraq or insist on early withdrawal, in which case they know that the Republicans will accuse them of defeatism and cowardice, if not downright treason.

But this is in truth a quandary for all of us in those countries whose leaders embarked on the war. Life would be simpler if it were a choice between good and bad. In practice, as Raymond Aron used to say, politics is more often a choice between the preferable and the detestable, but even that does not describe the alternatives in Iraq. We are now faced with a choice between the detestable and the even worse.

Well before the Senate debate on Iraq began on Wednesday, the Democrats knew what they were in for. "When it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running," Karl Rove, President Bush's adviser, said recently, setting the tone for other Republicans.

There is something truly impressive about the appropriation of patriotism by President Bush and his colleagues, giving new meaning to Johnson's phrase about the last refuge of scoundrels. Here is an administration peopled almost entirely by "chickenhawks" or military virgins: men like Dick Cheney, who "had other priorities" when he should have been drafted, or the President himself, who served in the National Guard, notoriously a means of avoiding active service in the days of Vietnam, that is; thanks to Mr. Bush, volunteers in the National Guard can now expect long tours of duty in and around Baghdad. And these people have managed to question the courage of John Kerry, who actually fought for his country.

All the same, the Republican jingoes are right in one respect: withdrawal from Iraq in any foreseeable future can only be utterly ignominious. It was another Republican, Senator George Aiken of Vermont, who said during the Vietnam War that his country should "declare victory and get out." But that moment passed; when the Americans did get out in 1975, it was in contemptible circumstances.

In Iraq things have gone more wrong quicker. At one point, not long after Mr. Bush's hubristic "mission accomplished" stunt, it seemed that the White House might adapt Aiken's advice, declare a democracy and get out. But that moment has likewise now passed. As insurgency developed into incipient civil war, events turned worse than the most pessimistic opponent of the invasion could have foreseen. Not only has every one of the ostensible reasons for the war been confuted, they have all been stood on their heads. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but there was much noxious weaponry, which has since been used to terrible effect. There were no Islamic terrorists; but now the country is awash with them.

Bleak prospects

From the point of view of those who concocted the war, the prospects are now even bleaker. Despite the rhetoric of its President, "Iran has so far acted with much restraint in Iraq." Those are the words of Amin Saikal, head of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at Canberra, and he has answered that conundrum. The Iranians are sitting pretty in the expectation that before long and thanks to the invasion a large part of Iraq will fall into their hands. Whatever glib words we hear from Tony Blair, the ultimate victors of this war look like being Teheran and Al-Qaeda.

For all Mr. Rove's shameless language, there are plenty of Americans not all of them followers of Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky, and some with a good deal more military experience than is found in the White House who think the U.S. should indeed get out. One amusing subplot to this wretched story has been the way that the American Right including neocon journals such as the Weekly Standard has turned on Donald Rumsfeld , blaming him personally, and not quite justly, for the entire debacle.

Another is the Revolt of the Generals. A succession of retired senior officers of the U.S. army have emerged to denounce the defence secretary and the whole enterprise none of them putting it more pithily than Lieutenant-General William Odom, with an article in Foreign Policy magazine under the unambiguous headline: "Cut and run? You bet."

To withdraw Western forces now is likely to hand an even larger victory to Iran and the Islamists, and that might seem a bad idea until you consider the alternative. Withdrawal would be "a significant step on the road to disaster," Senator John McCain (the Republican whom liberals like) declared on Wednesday, and Christopher Shays, a Republican Congressman, says that our watchword should now be "staying the course, or learning from our mistakes and now doing it right."

Their words join a long catalogue. Mr. Blair says Britain will not withdraw until the time is right. U.K. Home Secretary John Reid says "we must finish the job." And Mr. Bush himself says that "we will leave Iraq as soon as possible, but not before the mission is complete."

Whenever I hear such sentiments, I am reminded of a story about Max Beerbohm. A friend of his, a now-forgotten playwright, was grumbling about his work (as writers will). He was stuck on his new play and on the end of the first act, where he needed a really powerful curtain line full of poignancy and suspense. Max helpfully suggested that he might try, "Well, goodbye now. I'm off to the thirty years war."

If staying the course until the time is right or completing the mission means creating a multiparty, multi-faith liberal democracy in Iraq, with constitutional government, the rule of law, a free press, a thriving market economy and a peaceable society warmly disposed towards the U.S., Israel and the West, then we might be talking about a hundred-year war. This could be a quandary not just for us, but for our grandchildren.

No doubt General Odom knows what they teach at West Point, but officer cadets of the British army have always been taught the first rule of battle: never reinforce defeat. If there is a full-scale military foul-up, recognise the truth and do not dig yourself into a deeper hole. Admit defeat and call it a day? You bet.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

(Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England.)