Imagine a bathtub half-full with stagnant water and the drain plugged. Your task: Empty the tub without a pail.
Do you: (a) stand there and hope the stagnating water evaporates, (b) turn the spigot on to fill the tub even higher, or (c) pull the plug?
If my admittedly imperfect analogy is not already apparent, the tub is the situation in Iraq and pulling the plug is the obvious answer.
In March 2003, the Bush administration opened the spigot and let the tub start filling. For four long years, it persisted with the same, flawed strategy - one hallmarked by insufficient forces and allies, and no exit plan.
Sure, the administration moved troop levels up and down a bit, altered tactics here and there, and replaced old generals with new. But, drip by drip, we mostly stood by idly as the water level continued to rise.
Then in January, President Bush and some enabling congressional Democrats decided that, rather than heed the voters' call last November to start draining the tub, we should open the spigot further. Call it a "surge" or a "troop increase," but by any name it was an escalation of the war.
Not surprisingly, the water level is rising faster. In the first 47 months of the war, an average of 2.18 American servicemen and women were killed daily. In the four months starting Feb. 1, the rate jumped to 3.28 - an extra dead soldier or Marine per day.
On the last day of May - which ended the deadliest six-month period of the entire war, with a total of 586 American fatalities - retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey warned a National Public Radio audience that things could get worse. "The bottom line: It's hard not to imagine the next 90 days not being a period of the most intense struggle seen yet in Iraq," he said.
Those are just the past, present and future American losses. The escalation has also failed to make the locals safer.
"The evidence does not suggest that the surge is actually working, if reduction in casualties is a criterion," Alastair Campbell, the former defense attach? at the British Embassy in Iraq, confessed upon leaving his post a few weeks ago. "The figures in April were not encouraging."
Since the start of the war, tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, with one study putting the figure at more than 650,000, and countless others have been blinded, disfigured, lost limbs or been irrevocably wounded in some way. An estimated 4 million Iraqis are refugees in their own country or in neighboring Syria and Jordan.
To put that into perspective, consider that Iraq's population is about one-eleventh the size of America's. Equivalent totals for the United States would be 7 million dead, millions permanently wounded, and 44 million displaced from their homes or disconnected from their families.
If that were the situation here, would we call it anything other than a humanitarian crisis?
Testifying last week during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearings as President Bush's new "war czar," Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, expressed serious reservations about the escalation's effectiveness so far.
"I'd assess at this point that the Iraqi participation in the surge has been uneven so far," said General Lute. He said he warned the administration in January that escalation "would likely have only temporary and localized effects" unless the Iraqi government and the other, nonmilitary U.S. agencies joined the effort.
But are we really surprised that Iraqis aren't doing much to help us bail out the tub? They didn't fill it, and they didn't open the spigot further last January.
A dwindling number of dead-ender war advocates warn that leaving now will lead to sectarian bloodshed and a large-scale humanitarian crisis in Iraq. That may be true, but our continued presence only delays that inevitability and may well worsen it.
Of course, these same war apologists rarely fret about the existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq - the one created by their deceit-filled rush to war and subsequent military mismanagement.
It's time to pull the plug on this war, the neoconservatives who wrought it, and the president who bought and then sold it to the American public. Waiting and escalating only lets the tub level rise.
Thomas F. Schaller's column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.