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Published: Wednesday, 7/9/2003

Bring 'em on?

They might not admit it publicly, but American soldiers still fighting in Iraq had to be cringing after President Bush's rash display of bravado in the face of Iraqi insurgency.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Bush declared that the U.S. would not be deterred by what is shaping up as guerrilla resistance.

If the President had just stopped talking at that point, it would have been fine. But then he said, “There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is `Bring 'em on.'”

American fighting men and women, already sidetracked from their military role into that of traffic cops and utility workers, don't need their commander in chief taunting the enemy to continue its growing deadly attacks.

Military personnel - 156,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq - continue to die steadily, picked off by snipers, ambushed by grenade attacks, and in noncombat accidents. Since Mr. Bush declared on May 1 that “major combat” was over, 69 Americans have died, one-third of them in fighting.

It is understandable that Mr. Bush would want to express confidence in his forces and let the enemy know that the United States will finish its job in Iraq, but it is unwise for the President to be daring the insurgents to make targets of our troops. Unbelievably, Gen. Tommy Franks also picked up the charge. He should know better, too.

Such comments not only were undignified and downright sophomoric in tone, but they undoubtedly will prompt more Americans to question just what it is the United States hopes to accomplish in Iraq, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.

Before the March 20 invasion, Mr. Bush and other officials pledged that the war would be short and sweet, that the U.S. would oust Saddam Hussein and get out in a matter of months, not years.

Now, after complaints from fellow Republicans in Congress, the President has shifted his rhetoric. Rebuilding Iraq, he said last week will be a “massive and long-term” project.

Mr. Bush's decision to finally be more forthcoming about the scope of the Iraq mission is encouraging, although it does little to quell public cynicism about why the United States is engaged there in the first place.

Discovery of weapons of mass destruction might end the debate, and the posting of multimillion-dollar rewards for the heads of Saddam and his two evil sons might prompt some progress.

But more straight talk from the President - and less reckless bravado - will be far more helpful in the long run.

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