Time for straight talk

August 26, 2005

THE DISCONNECT between President Bush's rationale for U.S. involvement in Iraq and what is actually going on there is becoming ever more evident to the American people.

A majority of Americans now believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, a significant shift from just a month ago, polls show. An even larger percentage believe the Iraq war has increased rather than diminished the terrorist threat against them personally.

Further, the increasingly bloody civil and sectarian strife in Iraq and the so far unsuccessful struggle of its interim government to shape a constitution that reflects a fair measure of democratic ideals underscores the growing sense that continued American military presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good.

Cindy Sheehan's impromptu protest outside the president's Texas ranch has given voice to that view with a force that surprised even her.

Yet Mr. Bush has responded like someone trying to overcome a language barrier by speaking louder. In two major appearances this week - surrounded by military veterans and families serving as human props - he invoked the familiar specter of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and tried yet again to promote the widely discredited notion that those responsible were linked to Iraq.

In new variations on the theme, Mr. Bush warned that terrorists are converging in Iraq to try to "break our will" but vowed that America would "finish the task" for which nearly 1,900 American servicemen and women gave their lives because "we owe them something."

The president owes them and the rest of America more, though, than rallies, sloganeering and - most offensive of all - a still-committed military mom counterpart to the grieving Mrs. Sheehan.

Some straight talk about an exit strategy would be a good start.

We don't expect Mr. Bush to admit to all the mistakes and miscalculations that got the United States to where it is today in Iraq. Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of extricating American forces there. But it's an insult to suggest all that's required to prevail is grit and perseverance.

The president's fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, whose political antennae are often more sensitive than those at the White House, feel the tide turning among their constituents.

Voters are growing ever more pessimistic about the prospects of a military success in Iraq, and want some or all of U.S. forces withdrawn. Accordingly, some GOP lawmakers are distancing themselves from Mr. Bush's policy, a phenomenon likely to grow as next year's midterm elections draw closer. Pressure is building for a debate in Congress this fall on setting a timetable for withdrawal.

Mr. Bush's response was to declare: "As long as I'm president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror."

He's in denial, or protesting too much. Either way, the accumulated evidence suggests he just isn't credible.

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