WASHINGTON -- Like a crapshooter losing his shirt but sticking doggedly to the same number, President Bush's stay-the-course speech the other night offered Americans nothing new in their growing anxiety over how he will get the United States out of the mess in Iraq.
Noting correctly that the war has become "the central front in the war on terror" but still not acknowledging that his invasion unnecessarily made it so, the president continued to cling to the unproven link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks to validate his war of choice.
He falsely labeled as "full sovereignty" the scheduled June 30 hand-over of governmental authority to the still-undetermined interim body that is to run Iraq until nationwide elections by next January. Such sovereignty clearly will be limited by the presence of the full force of U.S. military power that struggles now to hold the occupation in place.
Full sovereignty would mean that the patchwork group of governmental "technicians" being slapped together by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi could tell all foreign forces to leave the country in a straightforward "exit strategy." But obvious security requirements would make such an order an exercise in insanity.
The president's disclosure that upon construction of a new maximum-security facility the notorious Abu Ghraib prison will be demolished as a "fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning" is a symbol, all right, but more of the failure of the Bush strategy of a tidy liberation.
More truly symbolic of his speech was the fact that he delivered it before a friendly military audience at the U.S. Army War College, reminiscent of President Lyndon B. Johnson's resort to military installations in his ventures into the American heartland during his stormy stewardship of the Vietnam War.
Notably, although Mr. Bush's speech was billed as an important presidential declaration of the nation's future course in Iraq, none of the major television broadcast networks covered it, leaving it to the more news-oriented cable outlets.
Notable also was the president's newfound affection for the United Nations, which little more than a year ago he was bluntly warning of its "irrelevance" in bucking his determined march to pre-emptive -- or now more accurately, preventive -- war, in the absence of those alleged weapons of mass destruction.
He spoke hopefully that key U.N. members, who wanted no part of his war of choice at the time of the invasion or since, would now join in the reconstruction of Iraq, even as a new U.N. resolution went before the Security Council in New York.
Not surprisingly, Security Council members that opposed the war from the start, such as France, Germany, Russia and China, immediately raised reservations about a hand-over of sovereignty that was limited in spite of what Mr. Bush called it, and even greater reservations about any homegrown security to ensure it.
Considering the fact that the administration has no intention of making any basic changes in its Iraq policy, the president's speechwriters did their best to package it. They cast the policy as an organized five-step plan from the present chaos to interim and ultimately permanent political reconstruction after elections, with Iraqi security forces increasingly handling security themselves.
But the package lacked the one element that anxious Americans want to hear -- exactly how and when U.S. military men and women will be taken out of harm's way and be brought home. That question is emerging as a central issue in the presidential campaign, and neither the president nor prospective Democratic nominee John Kerry has produced a clear-cut and encouraging answer yet.
Mr. Kerry for months has been calling for the return to the United Nations, arguing that Mr. Bush has so alienated the international community that only a new president can restore its support. So if Mr. Bush can achieve some measure of acceptance and cooperation from the Security Council, he will at least counter that argument. And if so, it would be the greatest of ironies that the United Nations, treated with such disdain by this president in the run-up to war, would play a role in bailing him out in his bid for re-election.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.