While waiting for the U.S. Senate debate to start between Sen. Daniel Akaka and Rep. Ed Case, I watched President Bush on the news making the latest defense of his Iraq policy.
Bush said a U.S. withdrawal would effectively hand Iraq over to al-Qaida and other enemies of the United States.
"They would have a new sanctuary to recruit and train terrorists at the heart of the Middle East, with huge oil riches to fund their ambitions," he said.
There's probably some truth to this grim picture, but the president left out a couple of important considerations:
Saddam Hussein was full of anti-American bluster, but he was a paper tiger with no weapons of mass destruction, no significant ties to al-Qaida and few resources to spread mischief beyond his borders after a decade of crushing sanctions following the first Gulf War.
The president's quick dismissal of these concerns displayed his dangerous refusal to engage in honest introspection or adapt to changing conditions as the U.S. death toll in Iraq is at 2,600 and climbing.
It left me eager for my first chance to see Akaka and Case explain their positions on Iraq side by side.
Though the debate provided them a total of only three minutes to address the most vital issue in the campaign, both candidates did a good job of crystallizing their views.
Akaka said he never believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was one of 23 senators who voted against authorizing Bush to invade Iraq in 2002.
He sees no purpose in extending the American losses, and this year voted for a defeated resolution calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops by July 2007.
"I feel we must put pressure on the Iraqi government to take responsibility for its own security," Akaka said.
Case said he doesn't support the "indefinite, status quo commitment" sought by Bush, and says "the question is not whether to disengage, but how and under what circumstances."
But he doesn't buy that civil war is inevitable, and argues it would be "disastrous" to pull out without giving the fledgling Iraqi government a fair chance to organize its military and police — a process he estimates would take six to nine more months.
"At that point, it would seem to me that our way forward to disengage was there," Case said.
So while the candidates disagree on whether it makes sense for Congress to set a firm timetable for withdrawal, they seem not that far apart on when the withdrawal could begin.
It leaves voters to decide if they believe the war is hopelessly lost, or if they feel it's worth further investment to see if we can still salvage something positive from the mess we've made.
In either case, we must minimize further American losses by moving forward with the kind of open and honest evaluation of where we stand that the Bush administration has proven itself incapable of.
The hard reality is that if the Iraqi government can't now secure the country — or even the city of Baghdad — even with the help of 140,000 U.S. troops, it's difficult to believe that they'll be able to do it on their own anytime soon, if ever.