IN SO many words he finally said it. In the middle of well-worn remarks about democracy being on the march in Iraq and failure not being an option, President Bush finally said what many have predicted and dreaded. He has always parroted the administration mantra of bringing the troops home when Iraqi troops are sufficiently trained to take over, but broaching the subject of a permanent American military presence in Iraq was studiously avoided.
Until now. The President let it slip toward the end of his recent news conference. The moment was a stunning throwback to Vietnam. It happened when the commander in chief was blissfully deferring to everyone from Army generals to Iraqi parliamentarians about what would or could happen in Iraq and when.
A reporter asked the tap-dancing Texan if, without tying himself to a specific deadline, he could at least assure Americans that all U.S. troops will eventually be withdrawn from Iraq. He couldn't. The man who mired his nation in a war of his own choosing more than three years ago allowed that while bringing home all the "kids" he's put in harm's way is "an objective," he'd leave it to "future presidents and future governments of Iraq" to figure out how to do it.
The Bush Administration that had sold its urgent war-making against Iraq as a shock-and-awe regime adjustment, or relative cakewalk for a superpower in a hurry, now suggests future administrations will be saddled with fixing what went terribly wrong. It doesn't seem worrisome to George W. that he will be long gone while his war rages on and American soldiers continue to slog it out in a land pockmarked and paralyzed by deadly violence.
More than 2,300 young Americans are dead and more than 17,000 wounded because Mr. Bush exploited the Sept. 11 attacks to launch a totally unrelated war against Saddam Hussein. It used intimidation and fear tactics (i.e. WMDs, the "mushroom cloud" smoking gun, shadowy references to 9/11) that the President now accuses Iraqi insurgents of employing to influence American opinion about how the U.S. occupation is faring against the occupied.
People are understandably affected by the consistent news of Iraqi bombings, ambushes, kidnappings, and brutal sectarian violence, the President noted to reporters. You bet we are, Mr. Bush. What is most disturbing are the regular upticks in American casualties as Iraq continues to convulse into a full- blown civil war. Every single day another young soldier or two or more is blown up or cut down by stealth enemies that blend into the population and grow ever more sophisticated at killing.
What the President offers as a way out of the insidious crossfire is repackaged rhetoric of staying the course. In light of the unfolding military, political, and ethnic realities in Iraq, it is amazing that Mr. Bush actually believes the country will fall for his warmed over fallacies again. His plan for "victory" in Iraq is to have capable Iraqi security forces replace American ones, a rooted democracy, and no safe haven for terrorists.
The President sprinkles his scenario with lots of optimism for success as he tries to convince audiences that he "wouldn't put those kids there" if he didn't believe his scheme for winning in Iraq was good to go. But he is fooling no one. The administration boasts of combat-ready Iraqi battalions but the Defense Department's own assessment of Iraqi forces is that they still remain "largely dependent" on U.S. combat troops for logistics supply and support.
That means the riskiest missions, the chanciest convoy hauls, the whole organizational structure of defense is still largely up to the American military and will be for who knows how long. Not one Iraqi unit is yet capable of fully independent operations, the Pentagon concedes.
The President is also optimistic that a unity government in Iraq will coalesce "as soon as possible" but the sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have grown increasingly violent and the political process has not moved forward. Former Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi recently told interviewers that his country was already in civil war.
As for Iraq not being a safe haven for terrorists, Mr. Bush practically laid out the welcome mat for the power-hungry when he toppled what held Iraq together without any contingency course for securing the country afterward.
America desperately needs a real strategy to extricate itself from the Iraqi debacle without making matters even worse in the region. Before they recessed last week, congressional lawmakers quietly launched a bipartisan panel of outside experts, including some who served on the 9/11 Commission, to come up with a workable blueprint that will, as one put it, allow the U.S. to disengage but not abandon Iraq.
Anything is better than a failed policy recycled to salvage midterm elections.