U.S. Sinking in Iraq Quagmire

Faced with persistent sabotage and an increase in guerrilla violence, the Bush administration faces unpalatable options in Iraq, especially as the country approaches the beginning of the year before the election. Real imperial powers ought not to be distracted by elections.

It can send more American troops, either National Guard or Reserve units, or new units drawn from recruits or eventually perhaps from a draft. This choice is unpalatable because it would be an admission that the administration had made serious mistakes in its calculations about how many troops were needed. Moreover, it would give the lie to the president's claim on the aircraft carrier that the war is over.

It can invite the United Nations to send in troops. However, the other Security Council countries are not likely to approve such action unless the United States eats humble pie, admits that it was mistaken in its confidence, and permits the UN to take charge of Iraq. It is virtually unthinkable that the president could accept that humiliation in an election year.

It can withdraw from Iraq. If the army ever manages to capture Saddam Hussein, it can claim victory and say in effect to the Iraqis, we know you don't want us here. We don't want to be here either. Rebuild your country yourselves. Fight the swarming Saudi berserkers yourselves. We're out of here. But such a strategy--probably the wisest--would also be an admission of failure.

It can continue the present strategy, at the cost of $1 billion a week, hoping that the United States can muddle through and that, as was said in Vietnam, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, the Iraqis may settle down and the neighboring countries can stop the flow of Saudi and Palestinian crazies. In another six months things might be a lot better. However, at the present rate, they may be a lot worse. American soldiers may still die every day and truck bombs may explode every other week. The military would be tied down in a seeming never-ending war. This paradigm is so similar to Vietnam as to be frightening.

Yet, the administration might well decide, that if the ''sacrifices'' in Iraq can be portrayed as necessary to win the ''war on terrorism,'' Bush may keep his eclat as an able wartime president and win the election despite being trapped in the big muddy. He might be successful in situations that doomed both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.

One recalls what Sen. George Aiken said of Vietnam: The best strategy would be to claim victory and go home. The present administration has proven itself very skilled at spinning reality so that truth becomes invisible. Does anyone remember ''compassionate'' conservatism? Or ''no nation building''? Or more recently, the president's claim that his energy bill would solve the problem of the nation's erratic electric grid? Everyone knows, don't they, that Alaskan petroleum is just what the grid needs? The spinmasters could fool the majority of the American people into believing that defeat was really victory. Having been clever enough to steal an election, the administration may well be able to pull off an imaginary victory in Iraq. What's the point in being a Teflon president unless you can do that? So far, most Americans still dismiss criticism of the administration's Iraq policy as ''politics.''

Finally, God, who apparently advised Bush to invade Iraq, might well intervene with a miracle because everyone knows that God is on our side, isn't He?

The American public grows skeptical of prolonged wars rather quickly. But this is a special time in the nation's history. The savage jolt to American self-confidence and self-esteem caused by the World Trade Center attack has played into the hands of the spinners. They got us into the war by playing games with the truth. They may also be able to spin a coverup that will persuade the public that the Iraq situation is not as bad as it seems. Can they get away with it? Maybe they can also pretend that unemployment is not serious.

I wouldn't bet against them.