A new justification for our war on Iraq has been born out of the war itself. No one will have forgotten that the war was launched to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq (weapons that have turned out not to be there); to end support of Iraq for Al Qaeda (also missing); and to build a democracy in Iraq as a glowing lesson in governance for the whole Middle East (a democracy that looks more and more like a mirage). But now we are invited to set aside all these disproven or failing prewar justifications and embrace a new, postwar one: We must stay in Iraq because, having once gone in, we cannot afford to fail.

The claim has a certain argument-stopping plausibility. It seems to mark the boundaries of a new mainstream consensus. It has cross-appeal to war opposers and war supporters. War supporters are saved from having to confess error. In the Democratic primary contest alone there are four legislators–Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman–who voted for the Congressional resolution authorizing the war. All are now critical of the war, but not one has repented his vote. All argue with the President over means only. They assert that the war is necessary, but he is fighting it in the wrong way. He must seek more foreign support; he must send in more American troops; he must recruit more Iraqi troops; he must come up with a better plan; he must give a better accounting for the $87 billion he has asked for; he must raise taxes in order to pay the sum. Everything about the war, they say, is wrong but the war itself, which remains right in spite of the collapse of all of its former justifications.

For some war opposers, too, the new justification is plausible, because it seems to acknowledge a responsibility toward the Iraqi people. Helping Iraq now becomes the cost to be paid for the mistake of going to war in the first place. And surely such an obligation does exist. Having removed the Iraqi state, the United States has incurred some kind of a duty to provide for the Iraqi people. The question, though, is: Provide what? If the United States were to restrict itself to supplying technical and humanitarian support, there could be no argument. The sooner Iraq’s electricity is restored, its schools opened and its garbage picked up, the better. Probably, there is also a humanitarian argument for providing stop-gap security. Unfortunately, just this sort of expenditure is the least popular, as the vote in the Senate on the $87 billion demonstrated. Most senators had no problem voting the $67 billion to maintain our people in Iraq. It was the $20 billion earmarked for the Iraqi people that made Republicans and Democrats alike balk and seek to turn $10 billion of it into loans. In other words, these senators voted down the only part of the appropriation that would have directly satisfied an obligation to the Iraqi people. The result was an incoherent strategy: hugely funded American forces kept in Iraq to take care of themselves. They can take care of themselves better–and at lower cost–here in the United States.

What the United States chiefly proposes to provide for the Iraqi people is not in fact humanitarian aid. It proposes to provide them a democratic government. But a government is not like a sack of wheat. It cannot be unloaded from a ship with a USAID sticker on it. A government–if it is to be democratic–must proceed from the will of the governed. And with every day that passes it becomes clearer that the Iraqis do not wish to receive a new government from American hands. An unwanted gift is no gift at all, and it can never be an obligation to “give” one. A statement recently made by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who probably represents mainstream Shiite opinion better than anyone else in Iraq, underscores this point. The occupying authority has decided to choose the framers of a new constitution for Iraq. However, Sistani says that Iraqis must choose the framers, in an election. The difference is fundamental. In the first case, the new order for Iraq originates in the occupying authority; in the second it originates in the Iraqi people. A constitution unmoored in the hearts of a people is no better than a “kite or balloon flying in the air,” John Adams said. Goods and services are transferrable across national borders. Political will is not.

Nor for that matter is it at all clear that the United States wants what’s best for the Iraqi people. George W. Bush has stated, “It’s in the national interest of the United States that a peaceful Iraq emerge, and we will stay the course in order to achieve this objective.” But the United States is not Iraq and what is good for it might well be a disaster for Iraq.

The new justification also has a strategic dimension that probably has greater weight with the decision-makers than any other consideration. Great powers hate to lose at anything. Once embarked on a course of action–even if it is a tragic mistake–they feel a compulsion to succeed that is not felt by smaller powers. Great powers’ ambitions are far-flung, and if they fail in one place, they are more likely to be defied in another. They are as concerned for the reputation of their power as for its substance; indeed, the reputation is a good part of the substance. In the nineteenth century, the name for that reputation was “prestige.” In the nuclear age, it became “credibility.” The United States, for example, embarked upon the Vietnam war for many reasons. But the reason it refused to give up for more than a decade was to preserve the credibility of American power. Long after policy-makers had concluded that no local stake was worth the continued cost, they still dared not lose the war for reasons of credibility. We cannot afford to lose, they said, as they now do today.

But the United States could lose and did lose. Costly as losing was, “winning”–indefinite occupation of the country–was discovered to be more costly still. Now once again, the logic of credibility threatens to introduce a fatal rigidity into policy. Policy becomes a tautology in action. We are there because we are there. We have to win because we cannot lose. Strategic retreat is ruled out. Yet nothing in this inflationary, self-reinforcing logic can change a jot of the situation on the ground, on which success or failure will ultimately depend. A policy that forsakes local reality for considerations of credibility is to geopolitics what a bubble is to economics. The bigger the bubble–superpowers beware!–the bigger the crash.