BAGHDAD: There is no substitute for being on the ground if you want a sense of where Iraq may be headed. The reality is almost always different when you smell it up close.
Back in the United States, I receive updates from a wide range of military friends and acquaintances - yet, no matter how much progress they report, the constant negativity in the media starts to wear me down, too.
Then I return to Iraq. And each time I board a military aircraft to leave Baghdad, I find my confidence heightened that persistence will yield advantageous results.
Given the complexity of the situation in Iraq - problems that date back not just to 2003, but to biblical days - no one can guarantee success, however humbly we measure it. But quitting will guarantee failure, with gruesome long-term costs.
Let's go back to a few fundamental questions, before considering what the future may hold:
Is Iraq worth it? Yes. Whether or not it was worth it in 2003 (and I still believe it was), it's certainly worth the fight now. By our enemies' choice, Iraq became the central battleground between civilization and terror, between good and evil - despite the left's denial that the latter exists.
Can Iraq become the model democracy of which we dreamed? No. But it can evolve as a state that treats its citizens with reasonable fairness, hears their voices - and rejects both terror and aggression. In the context of the Middle East, that's still a big win.
What really happens if we leave sooner, rather than later? None of us knows with certainty. Nor do the Iraqis. But they believe that sectarian violence would explode and that a largely defeated al Qaeda in Iraq would gain a new lease on life.
What happens to the region if we quit Iraq? Iran wins.
SO where are we now, at the beginning of September 2007, with Washington already prejudging and prespinning what our military commander in Iraq will report in a few weeks?
Given the strategic bravado and operational inconsistency - the battlefield fecklessness - of the Bush administration in the past, it's essential to avoid gushing optimism. But, based upon what I saw, from the dust of Anbar Province to the streets of Baghdad, during Infantry patrols and in interviews with generals I trust, I believe that sober optimism is in order.
The critical variant now isn't our military's performance - since Gen. David Petraeus took command, we've made remarkable progress (although Petraeus is quick to credit others - not least, Col. Sean McFarlane, who pioneered reconcilation with the Sunni tribes).
The 2,000-pound camel is the Iraqi government. If it doesn't find its way to a truly national agenda that deals justly with all Iraqis, and if it doesn't do so quickly, the choices before us - short of just leaving - will be to engineer the government's replacement, or to let it rot and concentrate on local alliances and completing the destruction of al Qaeda in Iraq.
That would mean swinging our support from the Shia, who increasingly obstruct us (and their own country's progress), to the Sunnis who are now fighting beside us against our mutual enemies - a startling role reversal. C'est la guerre.
But if Iraqi politics expose humanity's genius for self-torment, the military situation has improved beyond all reasonable expectations.
One blade-sharp officer, Lt. Col. Doug Ollivant, the 1st Cavalry Division's G-5 Plans officer, even proposes that "our counterinsurgency fight is largely won," with the fading of the Sunni insurgency and the gutting of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Ollivant sees us transitioning to a role as referee between Sunni and Shia as the country mends. But a looming danger is that ever-declared-by-the-media, never-quite-materialized civil war (Dude, where is my civil war?). It wouldn't be a fault-line conflict between Sunni and Shia, but a massive feud within the increasingly divided Shia community.
Despite Muqtada al-Sadr's call for a six-month abstention by his Mahdi Army from attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces - we'll just see what comes of it - a showdown may be nearing between the pass-for-moderates Badr Brigades and Muqtada's Jaish-al-Mahdi (JAM).
U.S. officers believe that, if such a conflict erupts, the better-disciplined Badr Brigades would score initial victories, but, in the long run, the JAM's numbers and its popularity among the impoverished masses could let it prevail.
Do we really want Muqtada al-Sadr to reign supreme in Baghdad? The future may hold still more unexpected alliances and role reversals - this time, with Shia factions.
I'VE listed the key problems that may lie ahead, but this visit to Iraq further convinced me that we're on a promising track, security-wise:
* Al Qaeda, America's enemy, has suffered a catastrophic strategic defeat and a humiliation - rejected by its own kind - that will resound in the Muslim world.
* That hotbed of insurgency, Anbar Province, has largely come over to our side.
* The surge strategy is bringing peaceful conditions to ever more Iraqi neighborhoods - and street-level Iraqis are grateful. They don't want us to leave.
* Despite Iran's growing involvement, we've limited Tehran's effectiveness - thus far.
Our active-duty officers stay out of politics, but they certainly feel its effects. The disgraceful squabbling on Capitol Hill and the partisanship of our flamboyantly irresponsible media (oh, the stories public-affairs officers could tell . . .) complicate the situation for our forces in Iraq.
Genuine support of our troops and their mission would be the greatest possible "combat multiplier." Instead, the campaign bellowing back home means that even our most-steadfast Iraqi partners feel compelled to prepare for two alternative futures - one if we stay, and another if we abandon them.
That doesn't result in a fully cohesive effort. Our allies in Iraq are well aware of what happened in Vietnam in 1975, when we last abandoned those who put their faith in us.
The bottom line? Our troops are doing their job, and they're doing it bravely and brilliantly. If only we could say the same about Washington . . .
Can we achieve a favorable outcome in Iraq? Yes. But achieving it depends on politicians behaving like statesmen - in Baghdad and in Washington.
We're winning in the streets of Baghdad, but we may lose in the corridors of power.