WASHINGTON - Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is again pushing legislation to reintroduce a draft. He first did so in 2003 to slow the Bush administration's rush to war. Now he says conscription is necessary to provide the bodies necessary for Iraq's occupation.
Returning to a draft would ruin the world's dominant armed forces, filling its ranks with people who don't want to serve and turning military service into a divisive political issue. Yet Rangel's proposal reflects an ugly reality: The Bush administration's disastrous intervention in Iraq is weakening the U.S. military.
Both the Army and Marines are failing to meet their recruiting goals. Reservists are being treated as regular substitutes rather than emergency complements for the active forces. Only Pentagon "stop-loss" orders, which bar personnel from leaving when their terms expire, are holding some servicemen and women in uniform.
It's one thing to ask patriotic young people to die pre-empting a dangerous state seeking nuclear weapons. It's quite another thing for them to die occupying, in the name of democracy, a nation that has not yet developed the civil and social institutions so important for the emergence of a genuine liberal society.
Of course, the mere fact that attacking Iraq was a mistake - a war based on lamentably false claims about Baghdad's possession of weapons of mass destruction and criminally optimistic promises as to the ease of occupation - does not mean that America should quickly leave. But when few military leaders share the president's optimism of freedom marching forward, policies no longer can be based on more simplistic rhetoric from those who sold the war with simplistic rhetoric.
For instance, Clifford May, head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says: "Failure is not an option." Of course, no one wants to see failure.
But what is the standard of success? Is it creation of a Jeffersonian democracy, meeting Western standards of political participation, protection of human rights, and government accountability?
Is success development of a modestly authoritarian state which mistreats minorities, and particularly religious minorities? Or is success establishing a stable regime run by a house-broken Saddam Hussein?
Question No. 2 is at what cost? Of course Americans should prefer a free, democratic, and capitalist Iraq over an unfree, authoritarian, and statist Iraq.
However, how much treasure should be spent and many lives sacrificed to reach Washington's goal? Failure is not an option unless failure cannot be avoided at acceptable cost.
Maybe the Iraq optimists who have been so wrong so often will be right this time. But there have been many false dawns - the killing of Hussein's two sons, Hussein's capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the elections.
The number of daily insurgent attacks is up over 2004.
Bombs like the one that killed 14 Marine Corps reservists in early August are becoming more lethal. After two years the United States still can't protect the six-mile road between Baghdad airport and the capital.
Thousands of Christians have fled to Syria. Much of the country is unsafe for any foreigner. The vast majority of both Shiites and Sunnis want U.S. forces to leave.
The United States can't leave tomorrow. It must begin planning to leave, however, and sooner rather than later.
First, Washington must define "success" in Iraq as a political regime that respects vital American interests, not one that represents a utopia seen only in political science textbooks. The United States should encourage development of a liberal political order in Iraq, but not make such a system an essential foreign policy goal.
Second, the United States must realistically weigh both costs and benefits. The primary benefit of the war with Iraq has been achieved: eliminating Saddam Hussein's regime.
The costs, in contrast, continue to mount. Iraq is an important recruiting tool for terrorists abroad. U.S. officials talk about the "bleed out" of terrorists back to their home countries and the West. Scores of jihadist Iraq veterans already have returned to Europe.
Patriotic young Americans are being killed, maimed, and wounded daily. The United States is spending a billion dollars a week on the war. Resources are being diverted from planning to meet future challenges.
Finally, while it has taken Washington three decades to shape a military that can quickly and decisively defeat any antagonist on earth, it has taken the Bush administration just two years to endanger the same force. And legislators like Rep. Rangel want to complete the wrecking job by returning to a draft.
There are no good policy options in Iraq. But the administration must abandon the fantasies that have driven it so far. Otherwise America will suffer a series of ever-worsening nightmares, including the possibility of conscription.