The recent U.S. troop escalation in Iraq simply is not working. We are now the proverbial man wandering the barren desert desperately in search of an oasis that doesn’t exist.

The predicament facing our nation in Iraq became quite clear long before the surge was announced in January. But even after all outside observers pointed out this mirage, the Administration refused to stop what retired General Barry McCaffrey has called "a fool’s errand."

The Administration wanted to make millions of Americans believe that we should wander further into the desert, investing more and more blood and treasure there. This belief, in turn, would reduce the mounting pressure to seek a safe and wise exit. And so it has – at least for some months.

As a long-time professor of economics, let me tell you: you don’t consider sunk costs when making decisions about the future. We need a sober assessment of the troop escalation and the situation in Iraq right now, and we need to stop pretending we can attain plainly delusional goals. We need more wake-up calls like we had on Monday, when veteran Republican Senator Dick Lugar said on the Senate floor that continuing to pursue the surge strategy would actually damage our national security interests.

This troop escalation has, in fact, been a categorical and catastrophic failure. The month of May claimed the most U.S. lives in Iraq in more than two-and-a-half years – 127 of our brave servicemen and women were killed. June hasn’t been much better, with more than 80 U.S. deaths so far.

According to the widely respected Brookings Institution Iraq Index, the number of daily attacks has increased markedly this year, and the period from March through June has been among the deadliest for Iraqi military personnel and police. Four years into the war, these metrics should be decreasing, not increasing.

For the people of Iraq, security and stability are elusive mirages, too. Insurgents have resorted to the sickening strategy of suicide bombings – just Monday, four separate attacks killed at least 40 people. One of these bombings killed six Sunni leaders who had joined with U.S. forces in the battle for stability in Iraq.

Many prominent Republicans have already stated that unless they see substantial progress by September, they will support a drawdown of U.S. forces. But with typical obstinacy, the Administration is already feeding out the line that a little more time and a few more troops will turn things around.

Instead of hoping against hope each day that the mirage will suddenly transform into the oasis of a triumphant U.S. victory in Iraq, let’s figure out how to make Iraq as stable as possible. Let’s figure out how to save the lives of our courageous soldiers still there – the bullets and roadside bombs that they face every day are all too real.

As we know, there is a slew of proposals on the table right now that range from full withdrawal to partial withdrawal to regional redeployment. I would like to come away from this hearing – and I think my fellow members would appreciate this, too – more informed about the real pros and cons of these plans. I would like us to think with sobriety about the safest and most prudent way out of Iraq.

We will discuss several proposals floating around Washington, some of which are emanating from some prominent and respected public figures and military experts.

Two think tanks recently released thoughtful withdrawal proposals that will serve as fodder for today’s discussion. The Center for American Progress promotes withdrawing all but 8,000 to 10,000 troops by the end of 2008, with the remaining forces positioned in northern Iraq to prevent and to contain a possible cross-border conflict between the Kurds and Turkey.

The Center for a New American Security suggests slimming down our Iraq force to 60,000 troops by the beginning of 2009. That force would remain for four more years largely to train the Iraqi army and work with Iraqi leaders to fight insurgents. Improving Iraq’s own security forces and army is an absolute necessity for the long-term sustainability of Iraq – a notion that the Baker-Hamilton report described in great detail. This is now long overdue.

In fact, most rational exit strategies suggest reducing our forces in Iraq to those needed for training Iraqi security forces, fighting identified terrorist cells in hotspots, protecting our embassy and reconstruction workers, and shielding important Iraqi infrastructure facilities, such as the Baghdad airport.

Some analysts have proposed variations on regional redeployment, in which the lion’s share of our troops would withdraw to bases in nearby countries, such as Kuwait. Many of these troops would remain as a quick-reaction force to strike if serious flare-ups occurred in Iraq.

Others have offered a vision that would include the replacement of our troops with an international stabilization force in Iraq, with many of the troops coming from nearby Middle Eastern and North African countries. Unfortunately, precious few nations have expressed any willingness to commit troops to such a mission so this plan appears to be a non-starter.

Given the abject failure of the escalation, we are no longer debating whether to withdraw. We are discussing how to do it, when to do it, and the number of the remaining force in Iraq.

So with our expert witnesses today, I want to discuss what makes the most sense for Iraq, for the region, and for American forces. No more illusions. We must banish the mirages and take a clear-eyed view of where we are and where we go from here.