AUSTIN, Texas -- It's quite difficult to convince people you are killing them for their own good. That's our basic problem in Iraq.

            You can try explaining that you are killing them in order to bring freedom and democracy to their nation -- "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in the world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom," said President Bush. However, this argument is less than convincing if an American bomb or bullet has just killed your child. Or if you were among the 70 percent to 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were there by accident.  

            Team, our national debate on this occupation is approaching the hopelessly dotty. This is no longer a matter of trying to decide if the glass is half-empty or half-full, or whether our media are looking at this through rose-colored glasses or through a glass darkly. What is, is. The trend lines get steadily worse.

            The accumulation of American errors has cost us the goodwill of the great majority of Iraqis. As their attacks on us increase, so do our responses, so does the number of innocent Iraqis we kill, so does the number of Iraqis who then hate us and search for vengeance -- in a downward spiral of violence that no one sees a way out of, except for out. That's what is.

            On the plus side, Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. On the minus side, we have encouraged anti-American terrorists everywhere, put ourselves at greater risk of terrorist attack, lost enormous amounts of goodwill around the world, earned the resentment of many of our closest allies and cost ourselves around $200 billion we really could have used for more constructive projects. The worst possibility is that we have set up the Iraqis for a horrible three-way civil war, an development that was foreseen before the invasion and is looming now.

            The dotty part of the debate comes from the neocons, whose idea this was in the first place. A few weeks ago, Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, said, "I think no one can properly assert that the failure to find Iraqi WMD stockpiles undermines the reasons for the war." Really? Well then let me assert it improperly. You told us that it was why we had to go to war, and you can't just stand there and lie about it now. This is like trying to debate the Red Queen.

            Sometimes it's more a matter of the neocons not being able to get their act together. Paul Wolfowitz, my fave, said the other day, "No one ever expected this would be a cakewalk." Actually, those were the very words rather famously used by his neocon buddy Ken Adelman, who predicted the war would be a cakewalk. But nothing tops Wolfowitz's classic declaration, "There is no history of ethnic strife in Iraq."

            The Center for American Progress has an exit strategy I think sounds useful. It is recommending Bush call an emergency international summit immediately, seek to have the United Nations fully oversee the transition, have NATO take the security responsibility and set up an independent trust fund for reconstruction. Further details of the plan can be found at the center's website.

            Paul Mulshine from of the Newark Star-Ledger suggests Bush do an LBJ announcement: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." That would improve the likelihood of the success of a summit, though the administration is in such deep denial about how badly this war is going it seems unlikely.  

            Just as a political calculation, the administration should consider the center's plan: It's not going to do them any good electorally to keep pretending everything is hunky-dory while we all watch it spiral out of control. According to The Wall Street Journal, the June 30 "handover" date is a complete sham: The United States is picking proxies and advisers at every level. Do you think the Iraqis don't realize that?

            One of our more impassioned public scolds, Michael Massing, wrote last week of "our great national narcissism," our notorious lack of knowledge about other cultures, our inability to speak foreign languages and our indifference to the deaths of Iraqis (hundreds of civilians dead in retaliation for the attack on four American contractors). Excuse me, but I really don't think Americans need a lecture on our many failings -- I think it is time, rather, that we call on one of our greatest strengths.

            We are a practical people and often quite shrewd. That means knowing when to cut your losses. Let's use it now. Let's not stand around with our thumbs in our ears pretending the nincompoops who got us into this knew what they were doing. We were attacked by Al Qaeda. Let's go get them and leave the Iraqis to international authorities.

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.