BOSTON — After 9/11, my husband started each morning reaching for the remote and saying, “Let’s see if they caught Osama.” This greeting began as an expectation, evolved into a lingering hope, and finally deteriorated into irony.

Six years later, our ritual preceded an early morning appearance by the newly trimmed and black-bearded terrorist. Thus fear descends into farce.

It was no accident that bin Laden timed his videos for Sept. 11. But then again, how fitting it was that the hearings on the Iraq war coincided with the anniversary of his attack.

The testimony was dotted with overt and subtle messages about Iraq as the center of the war on terrorism without acknowledging how it became the center. In opening statements, Ambassador Ryan Crocker used “al-Qaida” nine times and Gen. David Petraeus used it 17 times without mentioning that there was no al-Qaida in Iraq before we were in Iraq.

There was nothing new in this false connection. For that matter, there was no news at all from the hearings, if by “news” we mean something unexpected: “General Bites Commander in Chief.”

Was there any doubt that Petraeus wanted to keep the “surge” troops as long as possible? Was there any doubt that Bush would claim to follow the advice of the man he commands and announce plans to withdraw those 30,000 troops by next summer?

Nevertheless, to my surprise, these hearings did mark a turning point. In place of swagger, we saw sobriety. There was no presidential voice in these rooms telling the senators and representatives, as he told the Aussies, “we’re kicking ass.” The cockeyed optimism of “Mission Accomplished” was replaced by the controlled pessimism in Crocker’s voice as he claimed, simply, that “success is attainable.”

One word leaked out of both men repeatedly: “frustration.” It’s a word that every American shares. The general who came bearing medals as well as a Ph.D. admitted, “I’m as frustrated with the situation as anybody else.” But if you need more proof of sobriety, there was the moment of the hearings when Petraeus was asked whether Americans were safer now. After a pregnant pause, he answered: “Sir, I don’t know, actually.”

This was supposed to be the week of Osama’s makeover or Bush’s do-over. It was the week when the public conversation may have shifted permanently. We have entered the debate over the lesser of two catastrophes.

Americans gave up the belief in Iraqi WMDs long ago. Gradually, most of us have given up the idea that we can create democracy in Iraq. Now we have also lost confidence that the surge can create the “breathing space” in which the Iraqis will achieve reconciliation in their disintegrated society.

Mission creep has become “mission shrink.” The real role of American troops in Iraq now is to try and keep a lid on the terrible violence unleashed by our own invasion. Our job in Iraq, as Crocker put it, is preventing a “big, nasty street fight.”

So we get down to the tale of two catastrophes. On the one hand the war’s supporters claim only that things will get horrifically worse if we leave. “Make no mistake,” said John McCain, “the consequences of American defeat in Iraq will be terrible and long-lasting.”

On the other hand, the war’s opponents insist that staying the course will only stay the disaster. All we get from prolonging the war are more casualties of the war. “Buy time?” asked Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican retiring from the Senate. “For what?”

These clashing catastrophes will be the central theme of the next presidential election. The choices facing voters will be these: Chaos in Iraq, or casualties in America. The forces of terrorism let loose in the world, or the real war against terrorism distracted by the war in Iraq. One side will ask how we can justify the massacres and mayhem that may well follow our departure. The other side will ask how we can justify asking one more, or 1,000, or 5,000 Americans to die — for what? A mistake.

Between these two unbearable options, I choose leaving. But any choice comes with a bitter recognition of the financial, moral and political fallout from this president’s decision and deception.

In Robert Draper’s aptly named book on the Bush presidency, “Dead Certain,” the president muses on his retirement. “I’ll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol’ coffers,” he says. “We’ll have a nice place in Dallas,” he adds, where he will run “a fantastic Freedom Institute. I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch.”

Just think. Osama is on the loose with his hair stylist. Iraq is coming apart at the seams. How swell that one American has an exit strategy.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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