Time, warped

June 29, 2005

IF ONLY IT were so. If only it were still 2003 and President Bush could plausibly argue that progress was on the march in Iraq. If only it made sense to contend that the war in Iraq was revenge for 9/11 and Madrid and Bali. If only it were somehow believable that the president sees a way to bring the conflict in Iraq to a peaceful and triumphant conclusion.

But it's not so. Mr. Bush addressed the nation last night in an attempt to rally support for his policy on Iraq, and instead it became disturbingly clear that the events of the past two years have barely made an impression on him.

He was right about one thing: that an abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a humiliating disaster. But nothing he said last night should lead anyone to suspect that he has a better idea.

Here are his main points:

We're fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here. That's a musty and bogus argument. Iraq was not a haven for terrorists until the United States picked a fight and destroyed the previous regime. But even now, most of those fighting against American troops are Iraqis; every one of them could be killed and there would still be a ready supply of terrorists from elsewhere. A comment like this brings back memories of that unfortunate "bring 'em on" taunt of the summer of 2003.

We won't let Iraq go the way of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That's an interesting sentiment, but the CIA pointed out last week that in fact Iraq is worse than Afghanistan was as a terrorist training ground, because it offers real experience. Mr. Bush has created a terrorist redoubt where previously one did not exist. The only way he could think to talk his way out of that was to try to resurrect emotional memories of 9/11, which he mentioned five times though Iraq had no connection to it, while bringing up terror or terrorism an average of once a minute during the 30-minute speech.

Liberty will spread outward from Iraq; just look at the Palestinians, and at Libya, which has decided to renounce its nuclear weapons program. That's a two-edged sword, even though the protracted bargaining over a new Iraqi constitution just might have a chance to succeed in the end. The point is, stirrings of democracy among Palestinians are chiefly thanks to the death of Yasser Arafat. And in Libya, it's worth remembering that Muammar el Kadafi was once as roundly demonized as Saddam Hussein; yet he was defanged even before the Iraq war by constant and intelligent diplomatic pressure. That strategy should have been a model for dealing with Iraq.

Iraq is being repaired. That's not what people in Baghdad believe; two years after the city's fall, it still is not getting as much electricity as it did before the war.

Progress is being made. That's not what his generals say. The insurgency today is as strong as it was six months ago, according to top U.S. officers.

"We are removing a source of violence and instability." That's hard to square with the daily reports of new mayhem.

Yes, a precipitate withdrawal from Iraq would invite mountains of trouble. But the present course is solving very little, and the president seems unable even to recognize that, much less plot a better one. It's hard to see how he can be trusted to bring this misbegotten adventure to a decent conclusion.

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