Where are we? The vice-president thinks we are succeeding. I fear that too much evidence suggests otherwise. A reader spells out the dilemma:

I'm curious about whether or not your position on the war is changing.

If I were going to summarize my take on where you have been (which is probably simplified and not entirely fair to you), it would be that the war is vital to win, that we've been doing a terrible job of fighting it, and that we have to turn things around and win it.  Fire Rumsfeld, bring in more troops, etc.

I agree with you that losing or pulling out is almost unthinkable. When I read things like that cable, or blog posts from Iraq the Model, I imagine the Iraqis who are friendly to us being taken out and shot. The woman who was told she'd have to wear something to cover in her head to ride in the cab - specific people. I mean, when I hear Murtha on TV talking about pulling out, that's what I think of. That's the question I'd ask him, if I were Tim Russert. What about the people they'll take out and shoot?

And from a more detatched place, I wonder about the security structure of the region. We've used Iraq as a buffer for Iran. What happens if that goes away?  That buffer been the lynch pin of our regional policy since the fall of the shah. It's one of the main reasons we didn't "finish the job" in Gulf War I.  What's it going to do to us if the buffer collapses?

But it looks to me like things are melting down so much that we're probably moving past a point of no return. The chances of this administration doing anything dramatic enough to make a difference seem to be almost nil.

I think we're f***ed. We're in a war that we can't afford to lose, and we can't win it. I don't think there's any way to avoid taking horrific damage over the next several years. A lot of good people will have to live in hell because of what we've done in Iraq. A lot of good people will be killed, and we will share in the blame along with their murderers. Domestically, we'll tear each other apart with recriminations, with finger pointing, with really vicious politics. In the Middle East, we'll have strengthened Iran's hand enormously through an unforced error on our part. And in the rest of the world, confidence in both our morality and our competence - both key qualifications for leadership - will be shaken tremendously.

I am very worried about further erosions of civil liberties and constitutional government in the years to come. I see that as the most important issue facing us - the need to preserve our system, and hand it down to the next generation.  But I don't see any public awareness of the issue, or much support at all for my position.

If we get into horribly polarized fights like the ones we had during the Vietnam meltdown, I think a lot of very bad stuff could happen to us. That's the environment in which I worry that real losses of liberty here at home will be possible, or even likely.

I guess what it all comes down to, for me, is this: is it possible to manage the collapse? To make it less painful? If there is a storm coming, is it possible to prepare for it? I really hope I'm wrong about all of this - that Democracy takes root in Iraq, and that Bush goes down as the greatest president ever.

I hope so too. I'd love to be able to write in a few years' time that all my fears were misplaced. But Cheney doesn't exactly inspire confidence at this point, does he? What I fear most is not just the next attack, but the response to it; and how, bit by bit, the West and our enemies may become gradually more and more alike. All we can do is try and resist this process - to defend the constitution at home, while fighting Jihadism abroad. But the center is weak.

(Photo: David Burnett/Contact/Time.)