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How do you know when it’s time to leave?

How do you accept that there is nothing more you can do?

How do you admit that your presence is making things worse instead of better?

How do you finally recognize that acknowledging reality is something different than giving up?

These are the questions facing us in Iraq. They are brutally tough questions, but it’s about time we confront them directly — unlike most of our nation’s political leaders, who continue to indulge delusions about what is happening in Iraq and what we can accomplish by staying there.

The U.S. House of Representatives last month passed a toothless resolution condemning President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops to the embattled country in what he calls a “surge.” Meanwhile, a majority of U.S. senators favor a similar action, but they can’t find 60 votes to advance it past a filibuster.

Of course, Bush is sending the troops anyway, and Congress won’t do anything about it. The legislative branch could effectively end this debacle by cutting off funding for it, thereby exercising their constitutional oversight authority and serving as the check on executive power that the Founding Fathers envisioned.

Instead, members of Congress are still afraid of being accused of being “against the troops.”

What could be more “against the troops” than sending them into a war under false pretenses, failing to prepare for a predictable long-term peacekeeping mission, denying them adequate equipment and re-deploying them over and over again?

How could anyone seriously think any U.S. politician is “against the troops,” especially if he or she wants to remove them from an untenable conflict?

Remember, Bush “surged” 10,000 troops into Baghdad in late 2006, and violence only increased.

No one wants to state the obvious: another 21,500 troops can’t stabilize a nation of almost 27 million embroiled in a vicious sectarian civil war.

Before we invaded Iraq, then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said that the U.S. would need “several hundred thousand” soldiers on the ground to help rebuild the country after hostilities ended. But even that massive force would have hit the ground at the height of our strength, not after the chaotic death spiral Iraq has experienced over the last three-and-a-half years.

If we were really serious about securing Iraq at this point, we would need to commit resources and manpower on a truly epic scale. And if those who favor a continued U.S. presence in Iraq want to propose such an investment, let them do so.

Instead they engage in immoral and reprehensible double-talk, in order to appear moderate and inoffensive.

“I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit,” said U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, “and I reject an open timetable that has no ending attached to it.”

So what’s the third option?

The fact is that most politicians are scared to act decisively. Even with overwhelming public opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy, there is not enough backbone on Capitol Hill to end what is inarguably a failed strategy, so members of Congress formulate safe talking points that don’t have any basis in reality.

For example, a Republican congressman made his case for Bush’s surge this way: “Imagine that you have a next-door neighbor who refuses to mow his lawn, and the weeds are up to his waist. You mow his lawn for him every single week. The neighbor never says thank you, he hates you, and sometimes he takes out a gun and shoots at you. Under these circumstances, would you keep mowing his lawn forever? Would you send even more of your family members over to mow his lawn? Or, would you say to him, you better start mowing your own lawn or there’s going to be serious consequences for you?”

It’s time to stop pretending that there are simple analogies or easy answers for our involvement in Iraq.

The best we can hope for is a phased withdrawal that secures Iraq borders, contains the violence and allows the U.S. continued access for surveillance and enforcement to prevent the establishment of terrorist bases. Of course, that would require diplomatic agreements with Iraq’s neighbors — a move recommended by Bush’s Iraq Study Group that Bush has rejected.

But that’s not surprising. He conjured a fantasy to provoke this conflict, and he has indulged in fantasy throughout its prosecution.

The only thing that ends a fantasy is a strong dose of reality. It’s time to wake up.

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