While the Bush administration contends with a natural disaster in New Orleans, a greater man-made disaster continues in Baghdad--with no end in sight. Among the electorate, there is growing support for setting a timetable for withdrawal--a demand voiced recently by Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and by 128 House Democrats and Republicans. Yet within Washington's moderate foreign policy establishment, opposition to the war remains strangely muted. Some call on the Bush administration, in the words of former presidential candidate Wesley Clark, to make "a better effort," while others propose no alternative to the Bush policies, contenting themselves with denouncing what the administration has done to date.

Early this summer, some of these Washington policy heavies--veterans of the Carter and Clinton administrations--convened privately at the Center for American Progress to discuss what position to take on the war. The discussion lasted several hours, but the only conclusion, echoing other similar discussions, was that there were "no good solutions." That position reflected uncertainty about what to do beyond what the Bush administration was attempting. But it also reflected a concern that by advocating withdrawal, the Democrats could potentially harm themselves politically. It would be better, some participants argued, to let Bush twist in the wind.

The reluctance by prominent Democrats to stake out an alternative to the administration's foreign policy was reflected in a "Memo to President Bush on Iraq" that the Center's director, John Podesta, put out several weeks after the meeting. It recounted all the things that had gone wrong in Iraq (for instance, "weakened and overstretched ground forces" and "a deteriorating security situation") without offering any alternative policy whatsoever. Its enumeration of administration's failures was perfectly consistent with either Feingold's call for withdrawal or The Weekly Standard's plea for more troops. As a statement of foreign policy, it was completely useless.

This unwillingness to take a position was also reflected in an August 25 column in Salon by former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. Blumenthal, while acknowledging that the war has proven a disaster, stops short of offering any alternative to the Bush policies and justifies the unwillingness of Democrats to do so. "It is impossible for the Democrats to be expected to arrive at answers to problems about which they, like the public, have been denied essential information."

Is this reluctance to take a position justified because of lack of access to inside government information? That certainly didn't stop the critics of the Vietnam War from playing a constructive role in changing American policy. Or is the reluctance justified on political grounds? Maybe, but that's not obvious. The Republicans, after all, carried the White House and Congress in 1952 partly on a promise to get out of Korea. And Richard Nixon's attempt to exploit the anti-war sentiment in the 1970 elections failed abysmally. By 1972 Nixon was trying to co-opt the moderate anti-war movement by his policies of détente with the Soviet Union and China and by his commitment to sign a peace treaty with North Vietnam. More to the point, however, it's simply not right to submit questions of war and peace to political calculations. The Iraq war is not ethanol subsidies. If our foreign policy experts think that the Bush administration doesn't know what it is doing in Iraq (and who can doubt that this is so?), they have a responsibility to offer an alternative--whatever the political cost to their party.

But maybe reluctance is justified by the complexity of the issues themselves. In a recent New Yorker, former Carter administration speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg tries to make a case that "the reticence of so many Democrats is rooted as much in perplexity as in timidity." ("War and Antiwar," September 5) Hertzberg's argument pivots on a comparison between the Vietnam War and the Iraq war.

Hertzberg contends that while the anti-war critics of the Sixties had good grounds for advocating American withdrawal from Vietnam, today's critics of the Iraq war stand on much shakier turf. The Vietnam War opponents, Hertzberg writes, could safely assume that "defeat in Indochina would not entail defeat in the larger struggle" against Communism. And he insists they were right, claiming that American withdrawal "set the stage for cascade of events that led to victory in the Cold War." By contrast, Iraq war opponents cannot assume that American withdrawal from Iraq would not entail defeat in the larger war against terror. In Iraq, he concludes, "The chilling truth is that no one really knows what to do. No one knows whether the consequences of withdrawal, quick or slow, would be worse or better--for Iraq and for the 'war on terror' of which, willy-nilly, it has become a part--than the consequences of 'staying the course.' It is a matter of judgment, and the judgment that will count, more chilling still, is that of George W. Bush."

Hertzberg is wrong in his portrayal of the Vietnam War critics. In the Sixties, the establishment critics like Senator William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, didn't think withdrawal would entail a final crushing defeat in the Cold War, but they were not at all certain that it would benefit or have no negative effect on the struggle against communism. Writing in 1966, Fulbright saw the United States choosing between "opposition to communism and support for nationalism." He called it a "cruel dilemma." And he and other war critics turned out to be right in this respect. American withdrawal ended a brutal and futile attempt at victory, and ended a period of upheaval in the United States and Europe, but it also inspired Marxist-Leninist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and Islamic radicals and Marxist-Leninists in the Middle East. Withdrawal was justifiable, but as the lesser of evils. It was not a "good solution." Similarly today, foreign policy experts face a choice between evils, or bad consequences. Fulbright made his choice, but his successors prefer to plead perplexity, or even worse, to leave the choice to the befuddled George W. Bush.

Hertzberg suggests, however, that perplexity is justified on the merits of the issue. It is not just a matter of the lesser of evils, but equal evils between which it is impossible to make a choice. I don't want to get into an entire discussion of the Iraq war, but as someone who favors the United States announcing its intention to withdraw from Iraq, I want to make a few points about the way that Hertzberg and other establishment Democrats frame the issue (see also "Divide and Conquer," July 13). One reason that the Democrats see no alternatives is that they define alternatives in such a way as to preclude a reasonable choice. Who could chose, after all, between pulling up stakes abruptly in Iraq and continuing to fight on behind strategic bunkers while country goes up in flames?

If there is one thing that the United States should have learned from Vietnam, and from prior interventions in the Philippines, Mexico, and the Caribbean, is that countries with a history of colonial rule will resist any attempt to impose an American-defined order, even if the United States is deposing an unpopular dictator. In Vietnam, this nationalist resistance took a Marxist-Leninist coloration; in Iraq, an Islamic one. Staying the course will not resolve this contradiction between American aims and actions, but aggravate it. The British military historian Michael Howard, who had earlier supported the American intervention in Vietnam, was asked at a conference several years ago whether he still thought the American intervention was a good idea. According to a participant at the conference, Howard quipped that it was fortunate that the United States had lost the war, because if it had "won," it would still be there.

In considering the alternatives to the present policy, one can conceive of coupling a phased withdrawal from Iraq with bold diplomatic initiatives that might mitigate the possibility of a civil war that could draw in Iraq's neighbors. One reason why the American withdrawal from Vietnam did not lead to a major defeat in the larger Cold War was that Nixon coupled an announcement of a phased withdrawal with dramatic steps to change America's world situation. Nixon called it "making the big play." He went to China and signed a SALT treaty with the Soviet Union. If the United States wants to withdraw from Iraq, it would also have to make the big play. That would involve, at a minimum, restoring American relations with Iran, but would also include renewing European and United Nations interest in establishing a peaceful and stable Iraq. Such a strategy could fail--the future is always uncertain--but it's got a better chance of succeeding than whatever the administration currently seems to be doing.

Why aren't alternatives like this being considered except by mavericks like Feingold? My own jaundiced view is that at bottom, the Democrats' foreign policy experts are, in fact, driven more by timidity than by genuine perplexity. They invent false dichotomies to prevent themselves from devising solutions because they don't want to risk the scorn with which the administration and its henchmen in the media greet any alternative to the current policy. Or, perhaps, they simply despair of influencing an administration that appointed John Bolton as its United Nations ambassador and someone who condones torture as its attorney general. But the Democrats and the Republicans of the mid-'60s faced similar prospects in criticizing, and proposing alternatives, to America's intervention in Vietnam. The Johnson administration was no less set in its way; and critics like Fulbright were temporarily cast into a political wilderness. But they braved the isolation, and the country is the better for it. Would that today's establishment Democrats were willing to follow their lead rather than letting Bush, the country, and the Iraqi people twist in the wind.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at TNR and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.