The President's initiative in the Middle East was never a sure thing. But I have argued, and still believe, that it was a calculated risk worth taking and continues to be a calculated risk worth supporting.

But, at this critical stage of the long campaign, when a critical mass of Americans are increasingly disheartened and Congress is perilously close to pulling the plug, one must ask this question: what if we fail?

What then, if we succeed in losing this war?

Background: How did we get here? Why the project for "renewal in Iraq" and beyond? After 9/11, it was apparent to any observer that the status quo in the Middle East was no longer tenable for the United States. Our Cold-War era, "pragmatic" policy of accommodating and facilitating tyrannical regimes, for reasons of vital national interest, wrought a generation of jihadists intent on Islamic revolution. The Islamists hated their own exploitative and corrupt governments, they hated Israel, and they hated us for enabling the two primary objects of their enmity. 9/11 illustrated in the most horrific manner that our great island fortress could be penetrated by these jihadists, and likely would be again. America was under attack.

The project to remake the Middle East into a more just and safer place for its own people, and more friendly in general to the United States and the rest of Western civilization, was an attempt to "drain the swamp." A freer, more democratic Middle East, so the theory went, would take responsibility for itself and be consumed with self-improvement, looking inward instead of outward, which would drastically reduce the threat of terrorism. We would become brothers, bonded by our mutual love for self-determination, amelioration and peace.

Frankly, the Bush administration vastly underestimated how hard this would be. While some academics tossed around timetables of four, five, six years and beyond, Washington never took the "pessimists" seriously. The administration believed, with a little luck, this thing might go fairly quickly and easily, and then we could move on to the next outlaw. To the surprise of many, we encountered a great battle in Iraq. Notwithstanding, victory remains possible. Iraq is still the key. If we can stabilize Iraq (and I firmly believe that all is not lost), our aspiration for a safer Middle East remains viable.

But what happens if Iraq never gets better, and circumstances (or a Democratic controlled United States Congress) force the US to abandon the project to reform the Middle East? Are we back to square one? No. If we leave Iraq in defeat and disarray, we are actually much worse off than we were the day after 9/11. The world will no longer be a safe place for Americans to travel or do business. What will that mean? It will inaugurate a radical transformation of American life. Returning to the pre-9/11 realities is not an option.

The complicated terror network organized to humble the United States exists to break the American hegemony on their side of the world so that the jihadists can foment a revolution over there unhindered. In that way too, 9/11 is similar to Pearl Harbor. Japan attempted to obliterate the US naval presence in the Pacific not to conquer the United States, but to give Japan free reign to conquer the Pacific. Like our presence in the Pacific during the 1930s and 40s, we have myriad self-interested reasons to be in the Middle East, but we also play a stabilizing role in the region.

Can we do something that will make the Islamists leave us alone? Yes. We can pack up and go home. But not merely in Iraq. To appease the terrorists and extremists, we must fold our tent and leave the Middle East to the Arabs entirely. In the early moments of the national crisis following 9/11, I believed that the safest course would be complete retreat, a return to isolationism. President Bush offered a different course, which was bold and risky, but, if successful, it will preserve our way of life. I credit him for his vision and courage in the face of a horrible moment in which no good choices existed.

If not Bushism, what? The remaining option is qualified Buchanism: neo-isolationism. We must leave our friends in the Middle East to fend for themselves, and pull-up stakes as the key player in, and international protector of, the global economy. Failure in Iraq will force us, eventually, into a much wider involuntary retreat. The America-policed international order will collapse (probably sooner than later), and the world will likely devolve into a much more violent and less stable place.

Therefore, if we fail in Iraq, our withdrawal begins the inevitable process of leaving American business interests in the Middle East and around the world unprotected and irresistible targets for Islamist revolutionaries and other malefactors. If our ability to protect our interests abroad collapses, then our economic empire necessarily disintegrates as well. Our current world order evaporates and another takes its place.

What then?

No one knows. Only time will tell. My guess is that objective observers will find the next world order strikingly less benevolent than the American Century, but, from our perspective, we can rest assured that American interests will suffer in myriad ways.

Again, we can not predict the future. Perhaps the clock would turn back one hundred years. Perhaps it will mean a simpler spiritually richer life for many Americans. Of course, if that happens, more of us would probably need to work for a living, making things and growing things. It could mean that our culture would need fewer academics, poets, entertainers and service providers.

What we know for certain? Our lives would change dramatically.