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Presidential Disconnect

President Bush’s pep talk to the nation Tuesday night was a major disappointment. He again rewrote history by lumping together the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the need for war in Iraq, when, in fact, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no connection to Al Qaeda. Bush spoke of “difficult and dangerous” work in Iraq that produces “images of violence and bloodshed,” but he glossed over the reality of how bad the situation is. He offered no benchmarks to measure the war’s progress, falling back on exhortations to “complete the mission” with a goal of withdrawing troops “as soon as possible.”

Bush spoke at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and offered proper respect and thanks to U.S. troops, more than 1,700 of whom have been killed in Iraq. But his address on the first anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq gave no glimpse of how much longer 140,000 U.S. troops must remain there. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave no timetable either but did say Sunday that the insurgency could last a dozen years. That realistic analysis marked quite a change from Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim a few weeks earlier that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”

Last week, the top military commander in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, also recognized reality by telling Congress that the strength of the insurgency was about the same as six months ago, before Iraq’s national assembly elections. The January vote, hailed again by Bush as a landmark on the journey toward democracy, was soon overshadowed by renewed violence as legislators dithered in forming a government.

The U.S. has had too few troops in the country since right after the March 2003 invasion. Bush said Tuesday that if commanders ask him for more troops, he will send them. But he quickly announced why no one should bother asking: Sending more Americans would undercut Iraqis’ will to lead the fight against insurgents and would signal “that we intend to stay forever.”

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Who could disagree with the administration’s goal of a democratic Iraq that respects human rights? But again, time for a reality check. A Times report last week noted complaints that the country’s special security forces resemble too much those of Hussein’s day, abusing and torturing those they arrest. A report Monday told of conservative Shiite militia groups taking over the southern city of Basra, killing political foes and punishing those violating their interpretation of Islam.

Bush might be right to now put Iraq at the center of the “global war on terror,” but it didn’t have that status before the invasion. Al Qaeda flocked to Baghdad after the invasion and used Iraq as a rallying point for Muslims outraged by the U.S. invasion of an Arab nation.

Recent polls indicate that Americans are understandably upset at spending $200 billion and so many lives in Iraq, while hearing only rhetoric about staying the course. If more months pass with Iraqi forces leaning on the safety net of U.S. troops, politicians putting tribe and religious community ahead of nation, and the daily havoc of suicide bombers, presidential scrutiny through rose-colored glasses will fall on ever-deafer ears. The public can recognize the difference between rhetoric and reality.


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