At first, Congressman Brad Miller thought that the only way ordinary Iraqis would join their own military and their own police forces was if they were convinced the American troops would stay to protect them from the insurgents. They didn’t want to be left holding the bag–he thought. Now, Miller’s almost convinced that the only way ordinary Iraqis will actually come together and defend their own country is if they’re convinced that the Americans are going to leave–soon–and it’s that or chaos.

He’s almost convinced.

Not quite.

Miller did not attend the Woolsey “hearing” on exit strategies Thursday in Washington, disappointing antiwar activists who’d urged him to go and lend his support. Nor has he joined the “Out of Iraq Caucus” or sponsored the leading antiwar resolution, H.Res 55, which calls on President Bush to announce a plan by Dec. 31 for getting out of Iraq and to start withdrawing our troops by Oct. 1, 2006. (Its only North Carolina co-sponsor is Republican Rep. Walter Jones, who’s among its principal backers.)

But Miller did announce on Thursday, to applause from groups like Code Pink that are lobbying Congress against the war, that he’s adding his name to three other House resolutions that challenge, if less directly, the Bush war policies. H.Con.Res (concurrent resolution) 197 and H.Res 375, both sponsored by California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a leading war critic, declare that the U.S. won’t try to establish permanent military bases in Iraq and call for an investigation of the so-called Downing Street memos about misused American intelligence. H.Res 3142, sponsored by Maine Congressman Tom Allen, balances expressions of support for American troops and a free, stable Iraq with a promise not to base troops permanently there.

It’s the latest step in a frustrating process for Miller, a Raleigh Democrat in his third year in Washington. He opposed the invasion from the start, predicting trouble–and a possible civil war–in a letter to some of his (new) constituents on the eve of the war in March 2003. Seven months later he wrote them again, saying the U.S. urgently needed to bring in the international community and calling for an investigation into the faulty intelligence Bush used to justify the war.

On the other hand, Miller says he’s “not a bomb-thrower,” and rather than align himself with the most vocal war protesters, he joined colleagues (like Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill) who tried to offer quiet, “constructive” alternatives to Bush’s post-war policies.

That didn’t work.

More recently, he says, “There are a lot of members of Congress who have done everything short of setting their hair on fire to make it clear that they think we are on the wrong track (in Iraq). Including me.”

But that doesn’t seem to be working, either. Bush isn’t listening. Nor is the media. Meanwhile, opponents of the war think Miller et. al. are just not getting it done. Case in point, a meeting Miller had with some Raleigh Democrats three weeks ago in which he openly agonized over everything that’s gone wrong in Iraq while stopping just short of calling for withdrawal.

“I do not support a deadline,” Miller said.

“It’s kind of disappointing that you’re taking a position to the right of Walter Jones,” one of his listeners answered bluntly.

In an interview Friday with the Independent, Miller recounted his impressions from a visit to Iraq almost two years ago. American commanders were confident that the longer they stayed in country, the more Iraqis would open up to them with useful intelligence about the insurgents. But Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Great Britain’s counterpart to Paul Bremer at the head of the occupation, said the longer we stayed, the more the Iraqis would resent us. Well, they do resent us, Miller says. Two years ago, he and five other House members who toured Iraq in closely guarded military convoys, avoiding all contact with ordinary citizens. “It was hard to be in the middle of all that security and think things were going well,” he recalls.

The only difference now is that things have gotten worse, and our troops are, if anything, even more alienated from regular Iraqis.

Back then, Miller says, he noticed that our troops called the people who were shooting at them “Iraqis.” No pejorative. A few months ago, he visited a military hospital while he was in Germany on other business. The nurses had taken to calling the bad guys “Hajis.” Which is a pejorative–it’s like calling the Vietnamese “gooks”–and is short for Muslims who made the Haj to Mecca.

Our troops are frustrated, Miller says. They didn’t have a real good idea of who was shooting at them two years ago, and they don’t know a whole lot more about it now. So when he hears Bush talk about “staying the course,” Miller hears a “course” that reminds him a lot of Vietnam: “Send our troops out and get them shot at,” he says disdainfully, “and then we’ll know who we’re fighting.”

He adds: “I’m not prepared to stay that course.”

Still, he’s fearful of the chaos that could ensue if we pull out precipitously, before there’s any stability in Iraq, and still clings to the hope that American tactics will change and, instead of making conditions on the ground worse, contribute to the creation of a functioning Iraqi government that, if not democratic, is at least considered legitimate by most Iraqis.

So he calls on the president to change course and establish “specific, realistic objectives, and the methods of achieving them, and some way of measuring our success,” soon. Very soon.

“I’m not sure that we can correct our course,” he adds, given everything that’s gone wrong. “It may be that whenever we leave, whether in six days or six years, Iraq will be in chaos.”

What is clear to him is that any chance to avoid disaster–and maintain the patience of the American public for continuing to try–is slipping away fast.

“I am rapidly getting to the point,” Miller goes on–and then he talks in detail about how limited the “specific, realistic objectives” will now have to be to be achievable at all, and how a timetable for withdrawal might just help bring the many factions in Iraq to the table and international help to the fore–and then stops just short of calling for such a timetable, saying finally, “I am rapidly getting to that point.”

Miller says his staff is after him to write a third letter on Iraq. We talk about the difficulty of making an argument in writing when you’re still on the fence about how to finish it–whether to demand, again, that the president change course or else, or to come out for the or-else.

Not many in Congress are at the or-else stage yet. But Miller’s almost there–and, he adds, a lot of other Democrats in Congress are almost there with him.