"Any appearance of a permanent occupation of Iraq by the U.S. will both undermine domestic support here in the United States and play directly into the hands of those in the Middle East who -- however wrongly -- suspect us of imperial design." So spoke former Secretary of State James Baker last week in a speech at Rice University in Houston.

There are few heavier hitters in Bush country than Baker, who was secretary of state when Bush Sr. went to war on Iraq in 1991 and the architect of Bush Jr.'s stolen election in 2000. A few days earlier, Brent Scowcroft, another veteran of Bush Sr.'s administration, raised once more, as he had in 2002, doubts about Bush Jr.'s Iraq strategy.

There's plenty of high-level talk of possible American withdrawal after Iraq's elections at the end of this month. A retired American general is now in Iraq to assess the situation. Even so, to bet that the United States might cut and run from the mess in Iraq is, in a historical perspective, a risky option. The traditional pacing of imperial adventures -- even misadventures -- does not include many pell-mell retreats. Where has the United States actually left behind military bases? Iran, the Philippines, Panama, Vietnam. (Its garrisons still haven't left Cuba, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Guam, the Marshall Islands, et al.)

The speediest withdrawal was probably the one that followed President Reagan's decision in February 1984, to pull a U.S. Marine force out of Lebanon after a disastrous 16-month deployment that included the blowing up of 241 U.S. Marines in their barracks by a truck bomb. But shortly before withdrawal we had the attack on Grenada as a consolation prize.

After nearly two years, eight U.S. divisions can barely guard their own internal lines of communication or the road to Baghdad airport. There's talk of organizing death squads on the old Salvadoran model run by the CIA, but it's way too late for that option.

The casualty list swells with each day that passes -- over 10,000 dead and maimed American troops. The torture scandals have been as devastating to America's international reputation as was the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam. No one expects the situation to improve militarily, and the prospect of civil war in Iraq looms. The war is politically unpopular here, as local newspapers and TV news stations carry weekly news of local boys killed or maimed.

The U.S. Army is cracking under the strain: No less than 40 percent of the U.S. forces now in Iraq are made up of national guard and reserves, most of them bitterly resentful of having been corralled into long tours in Iraq with no release in sight. Last month, the general who heads the Army reserves stated bleakly in a memo to his superiors that his units were "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force."

New recruitment to the reserves and to the Army has plummeted, for obvious reasons. The generals want out, before the war destroys the U.S. Army.

The cost of the war is already huge: $200 billion by the end of this fiscal year is the forecast of Chuck Spinney, a former Pentagon analyst. America is trying to finance this with its cheap dollar, but that is raising other political problems.

Politically, there will never be a more opportune time to start a withdrawal. Bush was reelected with a solid majority. Unlike Kerry, he does not have to establish his warmongering credentials. Republicans rule both chambers of Congress, and the midterm elections are nearly two years in the future.

The political establishment is split. James Baker certainly speaks for the oil industry, and most of corporate America thinks America has problems far more pressing than Iraq. The libertarian and old conservative wing of the Republican Party has never liked this war.

But the Israel lobby, which pitched the war to Bush and got America into it, is still deeply committed and retains considerable power both in the government, the Congress and the para-government of Institutes, Centers and think tanks that throttle Washington like kudzu.

The great dread of the Israel lobby back in the early 1970s was that withdrawal from Vietnam might presage withdrawal of support for Israel. The same lobby would see withdrawal from Iraq as a huge setback, and the Sharon government is no doubt pondering scenarios -- maybe a Tonkin Gulf-type incident involving Iran, perhaps an attack on its reactor -- to ensure withdrawal is postponed. All the leaks and consequent news stories -- notably one by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker -- about intelligence sorties by U.S. or Israeli units in western Iran, and possible attack on Iran later this year reflect the ferocious debate going inside the Bush administration. As in 2002, the strategy of the war party is to maintain tension and to fan the flames.

Bush himself has a huge stake in being able to claim some sort of "success" in Iraq, so it all depends on how the Iraq elections play out. If somehow the White House can claim that Iraq has now been led toward the "democratic" path, then decorous retreat is conceivable. If the resistance makes further strides, if the Shia turn on the United States, then retreat will be inevitable, with the only other option to the U.S. being a draft here and a U.S. force four times its present size. The war would become the all-consuming theme of Bush's second term.

It would be rational for the United States to start withdrawal in a month or two. But we are not dealing with rationality. Gabriel Kolko, America's greatest historian of war, put it well, in this reflection on "intelligence" and Vietnam:

"The state's intelligence mechanisms are constrained by a larger structural and ideological environment and by the inherent irrationality of a foreign policy which foredooms any effort to base action on informed insight to a chimera. ...There are innumerable reasons we must conclude this Ö To expect the U.S. to behave other than as it has is to cultivate serious illusions and delude oneself. The system, in a word, is irrational. We saw it in Vietnam, and we are seeing it today in Iraq."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.