In early September 2005, one of the US's leading conservatives, senator John Warner of Virginia, who chairs the senate armed service committee, announced plans to call defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld for hearings on the mess in Iraq. Significantly, Warner noted with alarm that public opinion on Iraq is approaching the "tipping point", after which support for the occupation would no longer be sustainable. "The level of concern is, I think, gradually rising," he told the New York Times. "I don't see that the Congress is going to suddenly pull back like in the days of Vietnam. It is the desire of the Congress to continue to work with and support the administration. But there is always a tipping point."
Like pressure building up beneath the ground before an earthquake, a vast store of pent-up energy is swelling beneath the US body politic over the failed war in Iraq. To be sure, so far that pressure has barely begun to register in open political debate: it is nearly impossible to find a leading politician, Republican or Democrat, willing to put forward a concrete exit strategy or to support the idea of setting a date for withdrawal. But there are tremors, and it's clear that a political earthquake could come as early as the beginning of 2006.
It isn't just the Democrats who are starting to waver in their support for the war. Quietly, behind the scenes, many Republican members of Congress - worried about the effects of the public's disenchantment with President Bush's war when voters go to the polls next November - are expressing grave doubts. "I've been hearing from a lot of folks on the Hill, from Republicans, who are worried about Iraq," says a former senior State Department official. "They're calling me to ask, How long can this go on? And when members of Congress ask How long? they mean, Can it go on like this until November, 2006?"
Public opinion, which began shifting decisively against the Bush administration's Iraq policy one year ago, now overwhelmingly favours getting out; and clear majorities now say that the war in Iraq wasn't worth fighting in the first place. A stunning poll from CNN and USA Today released recently asked voters, "If you could talk with President George W Bush for 15 minutes about the situation in Iraq, what would you, personally, advise him to do?" Far and away the most popular answer was: get out now. Forty-one per cent picked: "Pull the troops out and come home. End it." Others picked more subtle variations on the same theme: "Come up with and execute a well-thought-out exit strategy (6 per cent); "Join in and work with the United Nations" (3 per cent); and "Admit to past mistakes. Apologize" (3 per cent). A total of 53 per cent picked options opposed to Bush's stubborn, stick-it-out policy. Only 18 per cent picked "Finish what we started", with scattered support for other stay-the-course options.
Not surprisingly, anti-war sentiment among Democratic politicians is being championed mostly by the party's hard-core left. More than 60 members of Congress, all Democrats, have joined an informal "Out of Iraq Caucus" in the House of Representatives. In mid-September, two dozen of them attended a rump, Democrats-only hearing to examine the possibility of exiting Iraq.
The hearing was organised by Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat. It had to be held in a tiny corner room in a House office building, with barely enough room for members of Congress and half a dozen panellists to sit crammed in cheek by jowl, because Republicans wouldn't cede any meeting space for the event. Still, the fact that so many Democrats showed up is an important sign that the search for answers to the quagmire in Iraq is increasingly attracting the attention of members of Congress. The star of the hearing was the lone Republican who showed up, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq in 2003, who has reversed his position and has now introduced a bill in Congress asking Bush to develop a strategy for getting out. Since the hearing, Jones has recruited at least five other Republicans to co-sponsor his bill.
There are also important cracks among the foreign policy elite. Fatal misgivings about the war in Iraq have been registered by men such as John Deutch, the former CIA director, who proclaimed the war lost and called for a "prompt withdrawal plan"; Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate, who criticized Democrats for lack of courage in confronting the war; and William Odom, a hard-line conservative and former director of the super-secret National Security Agency, who penned a widely-read document entitled What's wrong with cutting and running? In the senate, senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, has called for setting a date for US withdrawal, putting him at odds with the Democratic leadership. And at least one Republican senator is speaking out. "We should start figuring out how we get out of there," said senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a conservative Republican and Vietnam veteran. "I think our involvement there has destabilised the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilisation will occur."
Still, in calls to members of Congress, foreign policy experts, and Washington think-tanks, there is precious little evidence that plans to develop an exit plan are underway. The premier US research outfits - such as the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations - have yet to announce any ideas for an exit strategy. The CFR's chief, Leslie Gelb, a renowned foreign policy guru and a liberal hawk who backed the war in 2003, is now deeply discouraged about the situation in Iraq. "We're all grasping at straws," he told a packed meeting of the CFR in Washington. "It's a horrible situation." But Gelb has little to say about how to end it.
In the corridors of power - at the Pentagon, at the State Department, in the CIA - the professional civil servants who make the wheels of foreign policy turn are blackly pessimistic on Iraq. In the military, experts are dusting off contingency plans for a quick exit, and most analysts believe that sometime early next year the Pentagon will start to draw back US forces, albeit slowly.
"You'd assume, and I know you do, that we have contingency plans for exiting Iraq at various rates," says General David Petraeus, who spent the past two years in Iraq leading the US effort to train Iraqi army and police forces. But Petraeus refuses to say a word about any of those plans. Meanwhile, at the State Department, lower level officials are hashing out plans to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Iraq, perhaps involving some of Iraq's neighbours, perhaps through negotiations or talks with the nationalist and former Ba'ath Party, Sunni-led resistance in Iraq. But so far, according to all accounts, at the top levels of the US government, there is not the slightest willingness to explore a non-military solution.
In the end, if the war in Iraq is to be concluded before 2009, when President Bush leaves office, there are only three paths toward that goal. Each could result from the combination of the growing public disenchantment with the war and the quagmire-like nature of the battle itself.
First, consider what happened in March 1968 to President Lyndon B Johnson in the wake of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Then, a group of foreign policy wise men, led by Averill Harriman and Clark Clifford, met with LBJ to read him the riot act. Vietnam, they told him, was an unwinnable war. Johnson halted the bombing, sought talks with North Vietnam, and announced his decision not to run for re-election. Today, a team of similar gurus, perhaps led by the Republican veterans of the first Bush administration such as General Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker, joined by Colin Powell and others, could collectively get to Bush and persuade him to change course.
Second, it's not impossible that the members of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in the uniformed military, many of whom have already reached the conclusion that the war in Iraq cannot be won, will descend on Rumsfeld and convince him to approach the president about leaving Iraq.
Or third, the burgeoning political opposition to the war among the public might cause the Republican Party's political strategists to conclude that continuing the war will result in catastrophic losses for the party in 2006 and 2008. Such fears are already leading many political experts in Washington to conclude that the Bush administration will try to have at least a token military force reduction next year in order to calm public concern in advance of the November 2006 congressional election.
One, or perhaps all, of these scenarios could begin to unfold over the next several months. If not, then there is the other exit strategy: a helter-skelter scramble for the exit forced by chaos and civil war in Iraq. At Lynn Woolsey's anti-war congressional hearing, this option was put most succinctly by Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "The key word in -exit strategy- is not 'exit' but 'strategy'," he said. Citing Vietnam, he declared: "We need an exit strategy we choose. Or, it will certainly be chosen for us."Robert Dreyfuss covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The Nation, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, has just been published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan (New York, 2005)