Any discussion of the Congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker must begin with this stipulation: it was an exercise in PR, not policy-making. Whatever the two witnesses had to offer, they were there to represent the President, and the President’s position is clear. War yesterday, war today, war forever.

The hearings did provide a window into Washington’s thinking about the Iraq War and the stunning degree to which our political class is trapped in concentric circles of imperial myopia. In the outer ring sit Democrats (and the occasional Republican), who expressed a searing frustration at finding themselves in a surreal, Groundhog Day-like eternal recurrence: things are better but not better enough, stabilizing but not yet stable, so we must stay. And while they took some shots at the “successful surge” story line, they showed themselves to be prisoners of their own making, unable or unwilling to move outside the terms of the debate set by the Administration.

Why, they asked, won’t the people we’re occupying do what we want? They aimed some of their most heated rhetoric at Iraqis who refuse to “take responsibility” for the future of their country. Criticism of the Maliki government is legitimate and warranted. But these criticisms slid all too easily from the government to the Iraqis themselves, creating a bizarre and unjust framing of the war’s victims as its beneficiaries. “We’ve done a lot for the Iraqis in terms of just the numbers themselves,” said Barbara Boxer. “And we are losing our sons and daughters every single day for the Iraqis to be free.”

You would almost think that in 2003 Washington dispatched 160,000 caterers to Iraq to wait on the population hand and foot, with the US taxpayer picking up the check. It couldn’t help but call to mind an earlier era: “Take up the White Man’s burden–/Send forth the best ye breed–/Go bind your sons to exile/To serve your captives’ need.” Despite an estimated million civilians killed, 5 million displaced and the country hollowed and destroyed by sanctions and bombs, too many of our Congressional representatives seem to conceive of the war as something we did for the Iraqis, not something we did to them.

But these Democrats are visionaries compared with their GOP counterparts and the two witnesses, who view occupation as self-justifying. We must stay in Iraq in order to defeat those who do not want us in Iraq. As maddeningly tautological as that is, at least there is room for a measure of unease. The few men–George Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman and John McCain–who occupy the tiny, isolated obstinate center of the debate, however, brook no such doubt. With tunnel vision that is absolute, they are content to look ahead to the glory and honor that are forever just a few more dollars, a few more months and a few more lives away.

Here’s the problem: after Bush and Cheney have left and even if the American people reject McCain’s plan to faithfully continue their policy, our politics will remain trapped. For empire comes with constraints, and it is within this cage of thought that our war “debate” continues to pace and growl. To “change course,” as the current vocabulary has it, requires more than a package of strategic adjustments. We must unlock empire’s cage and reject the entire project of occupation as something to be properly managed instead of ended as soon as possible.

Setting a timeline for withdrawal (whenever that becomes possible) won’t in and of itself achieve this conceptual shift; we must work harder for that. But it seems to offer the only hope for finding our way out of the cage.