Five years in and the only thing we can say about our military misadventure in Iraq is that victory always seems to be around the corner.
The problem is that every time we turn a corner, victory seems that much farther away.
We received a reminder of this on Tuesday. On the same day that a federal official was testifying before the U.S. Senate that violence was on the decline, there were reports that 46 were killed in skirmishes and attacks around the country. This was just days after another set of attacks left nearly 70 dead.
War supporters would call me a pessimist. But, after five years in which nearly 4,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands - of Iraqis have been killed, I don't know how you can see it any other way.
Consider the report presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday by Comptroller General David Walker of the federal Government Accountability Office.
According to a report on his presentation in The New York Times, the average number of insurgent attacks had fallen to about a third of last summer's average - from an average of 180 a day in June to about 60 a day in January.
While the decrease is good news, its importance must be placed within the larger context of the last five years. The 60-a-day average is "roughly equivalent to the levels of violence in the spring of 2005, has remained essentially unchanged since the last significant decrease between October and November," the Times reported.
Essentially, the violence had plateaued at what I would consider an unreasonably high level - one that, given the events of the last few weeks, appears to be temporary.
"Based on reports from February, violence may already be increasing," the paper said. "An independent tally by The Associated Press recorded a jump last month in the average number of Iraqis killed per day compared with January's figures."
The AP figures are pretty stark. Its count found that, "at the height of unrest from November 2006 to August 2007, on average approximately 65 Iraqis died each day as a result of violence," according to an AP story by Bradley Brooks.
"As conditions improved, the daily death toll steadily declined," he wrote. "It reached its lowest point in more than two years on January 2008, when on average 20 Iraqis died each day.
"Those numbers have since jumped. In February, approximately 26 Iraqis died each day as a result of violence, and so far in March, that number is up to 39 daily. These figures reflect the months in which people were found, and not necessarily - in the case of mass graves - the months in which they were killed."
The military discounts the numbers, saying that a longer view is necessary to understand what has been happening. But that longer view also can be used to paint the spike in violence as an anomaly, a short-term blip that was destined to fall to pre-spike levels after a while.
I am not saying that this is what happened. I raise this possibility only to make the point that the larger questions are no longer being debated. We've fallen into a pattern in which we argue over the meaning of individual attacks and individual deaths, but no longer spend a lot of time discussing what we get for our presence in Iraq, or even what the Iraqis are getting.
By we I mean the mainstream media and the president and not the public, which has been consistent in its opposition to the war for the last couple of years.
In poll after poll, Americans say they want American troops to come home and that they want the money being spent on the war to be spent on needs at home (repairing aging infrastructure, for instance, or providing health care).
President George W. Bush, however, continues to view the war through rose-colored glasses, claiming major improvements in security that are at odds with the facts and pointing to a liberated Iraq as a growing bastion of freedom and democracy in the region.
He needs to take off the glasses and take a clear and honest look at what he has wrought in Iraq: nearly 4,000 dead and thousands of wounded American soldiers, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, a damaged standing in the world, a busted budget, the fraying of the U.S. Constitution.
It's time to pull the plug on this misadventure.