An idle threat

ON WEDNESDAY, President Bush told the nation that "America's commitment is not open-ended" in Iraq. By Friday, however, the administration was already backsliding. What wasn't open-ended, apparently, was just U.S. support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. When it comes to American boots on the ground, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the U.S. is in Iraq for the long haul.

Gates put it bluntly in testimony Friday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Saying, 'If you don't do this, we'll leave, and we'll leave now,' does not strike me as being in the national interests of the United States," Gates said. As for how long the U.S. will stay, he reckoned, "I think [what] the president had in mind was that we would probably have to be in Iraq to provide help of one kind or another to the Iraqis for quite some time."

This is not what the American people want; this is not what the Iraqi Study Group recommended; and it is not the best way to prosecute a war against the radical Islamists who attacked this country on 9/11. It is, instead, a way to guarantee that the U.S. military will be dangerously overstretched and needlessly vulnerable to sectarian militias in Iraq.

Even as the president was delivering his address, administration officials were whispering to reporters (including some for this newspaper) that "simply coming home isn't an option" and that Maliki's days may be numbered. This would, to put it gently, undermine the White House's claim to be pushing toward increased Iraqi sovereignty. To the contrary: It would require ever-greater U.S. responsibility for a post-totalitarian country sliding deeper into anarchy.

If Maliki is shown to be incapable of disarming Shiite militias, it will be because he wouldn't or couldn't rise above civil war. If his government collapses, the only central authority remaining will be the one most resented -- America's 150,000-strong fighting force -- and prospects for a unity government will be grim. The White House's approach to this plausible scenario is to insist, more loudly by the day, that failure is not an option.

"Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for our future," Bush warned soldiers Thursday at Ft. Benning, Ga. "Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength.... Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have safe havens from which to launch attacks. People would look back at this moment in history and say, 'What happened to them in America? How come they couldn't see the threats to a future generation?' That is why we must, and we will, succeed in Iraq."

Unfortunately for Bush, and for the rest of us, "we can't fail" is not a strategy. As painful experience has shown in Iraq, it is a recipe for further failure because it encourages wishful thinking at the expense of realistic planning.

Bush's speech Wednesday offered some small hope that his ultimatum to Maliki had real consequences -- that Bush would withdraw U.S. troops "if the Iraqi government does not follow through in its promises." By Friday, it appeared that this was an empty threat. The consequences of Baghdad's broken promises could be greater U.S. involvement in -- and greater U.S. responsibility for -- an Iraqi civil war.

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