The dilemma is such that, when facing it, one is left with a tremendous feeling of impotence. How can this nation extricate itself from what increasingly is becoming a sequel to Vietnam, the most divisive affair in the 20th century? What is the best way to end a misguided adventure that once again threatens to tear the political and social fabric to such an extent that it will take years to repair?

President Bush believes the only way of salvaging at least some of the goals sought by the invasion of Iraq is to add another 21,500 troops to quell the secular violence paralyzing Baghdad. Nothing, it seems, will dissuade the commander in chief from his belief that this “surge” is the necessary ingredient for success and ultimate withdrawal of the U.S. presence from what now is openly a civil war.

Democrats and a growing number of Republicans in Congress see it otherwise and the upshot of is likely to be adoption this week of a nonbinding resolution opposing the move. This could be followed before year’s end with withholding of funds to support the war, an action that even the most ardent Bush critics would like to defer given its potential impact on American troops in the field. No one wants to be accused of not supporting the young men and women charged with trying to bring some order out of the chaos.

The additional troops will be sent, of course, no matter what measure Congress adopts nor how many protesters led by Hollywood stars demonstrate here. The commander in chief is, as Bush reminded us recently, just that and he will make the decision. What impact then will a divided American government have on the chances of success for the president’s plan? Will the religious factions and insurgents in Iraq renew their efforts believing that Americans ultimately will force the nation’s premature withdrawal? Certainly that was what happened in Vietnam. More critical is what that message might mean to the safety of U.S. forces already there and on their way.

These are questions being asked, and with justification, by those who counsel that bad things can come from ill-advised congressional interference, that more American lives will be lost and that even more instability than already exists will result. They echo the president’s plea to the Congress and the American people to give this latest approach a chance.

Yet there are among the dissenters a number of distinguished lawmakers not the least of which is Virginia’s John Warner, who is the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and now its ranking Republican. Warner’s need to speak out against the surge is intensified by his admitted failure to do so during the Vietnam era when constant increases in troops were demanded but failed to win the conflict. The parallels between then and now are obvious, except that even before the invasion of Iraq seasoned generals were arguing to no avail that as many as 300,000 troops would be needed to keep the peace. It is, of course, too late for that even though it is clear how right they were.

Those opposing more troops now see the plan as a futile attempt that will fail at the cost of far more American lives. They argue that placing even more U.S. troops in harm’s way among undependable Iraqi forces infiltrated by members of the factions they are trying to subdue is foolish and as ill conceived as the conduct of the war has been from its beginning when the Pentagon’s blitzkrieg success was not bolstered by any viable postwar consideration or planning by the Bush administration.

There are strong points on both sides of this debate. U.S troops, if reporting is accurate, already are beginning to feel like those who served in Vietnam, unsupported and unappreciated. Not to provide them with the extra strength needed to accomplish the mission would add to that dangerous psychology. Many have lost buddies and relatives and to think that was for nothing could be devastating to morale. On the other hand, it is legitimate to ask when, if ever, the current Iraqi forces and their government can carry their own water? And how many more U.S. lives we must lose to find out?

The polls and election results make it clear Americans want this over now, but at what cost? We pay lawmakers to worry about our wishes. The president necessarily must think independently and not worry about polls. Therein lies the dilemma and it can be paralyzing.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

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