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Where's the exit from this mess?

THE DESIRE to escape the Iraq trap grows stronger every day. As daily reports from Iraq richochet between grim and grisly, the psychological vise tightens. The brain wants out. But the ugly headlines, photographs, and video won't go away.

One neighbor says he is reading a book on physics to escape war news. At the start of a Mother's Day road race, a fellow runner confesses a newly acquired taste for mind-numbing television shows like "Extreme Makeover." Home and Garden TV is a personal draw; it is much more pleasant to contemplate the touches that give a house curb appeal than think about American abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib or the videotaped beheading of an American by Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda.

Even so, mental escape is not easy. Springtime in America -- from lilacs to baseball games, from tulips to weddings -- is beautiful, but not beautiful enough to block out the ugliness in Iraq.

It is said that Americans like their wars like their hamburgers, fast and far removed from the killing that is required in both. Here, the problem is not the length of the war or the casualties, sad as they are. It is trying to figure out what, if anything, is being accomplished in Iraq and how the United States can extricate itself without looking weak. The imminent threat allegedly posed by Saddam Hussein remains undocumented. It is difficult to feel good about liberating a country that does not appear to desire that liberation. President Bush's words about ending the rape and torture of the previous regime resonate less forcefully after disclosures about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American contractors and military personnel. Like the mutilation of the bodies of American contractors in Fallujah, the beheading of Nicholas Berg is horrible in itself but even more horrible as a symbol of the base savagery the United States faces in Iraq.

Bush and Kerry both say America cannot cut and run from Iraq. That may be true, but this American mind very much wants to. It does not like going around in circles, trying to understand the invasion of a country, ongoing death and destruction, and no end in sight. It is concluding that Islamic extremists are delighted the United States picked this war with Iraq because it gives those extremists a grand international stage on which to play their conscience-less killing games. Now the terrorists can take the fight directly to America without the trouble of plotting another Sept. 11; this is better than blowing up buses in Israel. It leads American news, dominates the American psyche, and dictates the American political debate.

For those reasons, the war in Iraq currently represents victory for the terrorists and failure by the Bush administration, which acted with the blessing of John Kerry and the US Congress.

On the campaign trail, Kerry is trying to stay "on message," giving campaign speeches about jobs, education, and health care. In doing so, he misses the point. A citizen can want all three, but first the citizen wants a clear path off this gruesome battlefield.

Those campaign consultants who insist the next presidential election will be a referendum on economic security are forgetting that an overall sense of well-being depends on more than a paycheck. Peace of mind is not wholly dependent on money in the bank, although money in the bank certainly helps.

No matter what your job or income status right now, who really feels safer and more secure? No matter what the stock market is doing, who really feels like betting on economic recovery? Those are the questions Kerry should be asking on the campaign trail. But before he does that, he must be able to explain what he will do to make the average citizen feel safer and more secure. The answer so far -- going to the United Nations and internationalizing the fight in Iraq -- is unconvincing. The UN and the international community see the same frightening headlines, photos, and videos we do. Every day, there is less incentive to be drawn into this messy fight in Iraq.

Bush says stay the course, be resolute, and see this battle through to the end. But his end game for this war is changing, just like the justification. It shifted from democracy in Iraq to some handoff of control to an entity that is difficult to define or envision. Meanwhile, Iraq is a public relations showcase for the enemy.

It is hard to imagine casting a vote in November that endorses continued feelings of unsettlement, uncertainty, and overall insecurity. This country must spring itself from the Iraq trap before it can focus on Medicare. It's the psychology, stupid.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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