I cannot have been the only one to have spent the Christmas break wrestling with the central question we have to answer in 2007: what to do in Iraq. The more you ponder it, the harder a call it is. It seems to me we have to leave behind recriminations against the Bush administration. History will damn this president sufficiently. There is no need for us to pile on now. The question is simply: what is in the best interests, first, of the United States and second, of Iraq? And yes: the American priority is clear. A serious foreign policy places national interest first and foremost in its judgment.

One option is to plow forward with this president, a new defense secretary and a "surge". By a surge, I mean a serious commitment of 50,000 combat troops to try and pacify a raging civil war - in Baghdad for starters. The point of such an operation is to do what should have been done almost four years ago: maintain the order necessary for any halfway peaceful transition to normalcy in Iraq. The drawback here is twofold. The first is that it really is too late. The civil war has gone well past the point of no return. Pacification of the entire country may well not render any of the parties more eager to sacrifice for a national democracy. American casualties could surge along with troop numbers, with domestic opinion already sharply hostile to continuing the war. The American political system could itself buckle under the strain - along with the military.

The second and graver problem is that any such surge would, at any moment, require the U.S. to side with one of the factions in Iraq and so embroil us in the Shia-Sunni civil war that is spreading throughout the region. That strikes me as a terrible risk. We are already targeted by terrorists simply for our freedom. To be targeted for being pro-Shi'a or pro-Sunni would add another layer of risk to the American public.

The alternative is withdrawal. Many will call this a defeat. In many ways, it is. The attempt to remake the Middle East on our terms and on our own schedule has been revealed in retrospect as pure folly. The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead. It seems clear to me that the deep trauma of the Saddam years - an unimaginable hell to those of us who have experienced nothing like it - needs time to resolve itself. It may even need a civil war to resolve itself.

The risks of withdrawal are also obvious: it would doubtless lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing on a hideously cruel scale. It may unleash a regional sectarian war with unknowable consequences. It is very difficult for any president to unleash such disorder on a global scale. Except, of course, this president has already unleashed such disorder as deliberate policy, and stood by as chaos spread.

I'll wait to hear what the president has to offer in detail before making a clear decision in my own mind. But my view right now is that we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities. This will force Iraqi indigenous forces to come up with their own leader, a man who has real power and a capacity to restore order, however brutally. We may get another dictator. In fact, we may have witnessed his unofficial swearing-in at Saddam's execution: "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" So be it. The current chaos ties the U.S. down in a hideously tightening vise. We have to change the dynamic and actually do something we can accomplish. We cannot win this civil war for any side, and we shouldn't. We can, however, withdraw.

My own view is that withdrawal might even have some beneficial consequences. It will force Iran and the Sunni powers to intervene either to foment war or to stymie it. It could well unleash turmoil in Iran, and give Tehran a huge headache that will give it an incentive to deal with the world at large.  I do not believe that Ahmadinejad will regard al-Sadr as a stable partner. Crucially, withdrawal could change the narrative of this war. So far, the narrative has been the one scripted by bin Laden: Islam versus the West. Thanks to Zarqawi, the narrative could soon become: Islam against itself. That is the real struggle here, masked by Western enmeshment. By getting out of Iraq now - decisively, swiftly, and candidly - we could actually gain in the long war. At some point, the chaos could force Iran to the negotiating table for fear of the massive instability on its doorstep. So Iraq could become the key to Iran after all.

The moral cost of withdrawal is huge. We should do all we can to provide amnesty for any Iraqis who have been loyal to us. (It does not surprise me that we shamefully haven't. This is the Bush administration.) But the moral cost of plowing on is also exponential. It may merely delay the day of reckoning. It risks sending young Americans to die in order for a president to save face, not in order to win. The truth is: we have lost this battle, if not the war. I am still inclined to believe such a loss was avoidable. The amazing restraint of the Shia for so long, and the enthusiasm for elections, revealed the potential in Iraq for a breakthrough. But this president threw it away. There is no getting around this, I'm afraid. It is reality. And if we do not get out by June, I fear an even worse one.

(Photo: Hadim Izban/AP.)