The war of words

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

August 23, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH'S SUNNY DECLARATION on Monday that Baghdad's leaders were "defying the terrorists and pessimists by completing work on a democratic constitution" was unfortunate not only for its timing but for its willfulness. Just hours after Bush's speech, Iraqi leaders announced (again) that they were unable to agree on a draft constitution. Just as disturbing, however, is the continuing disconnect between the president's perspective and Iraq's reality.

In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush again conflated Al Qaeda and Iraq, neglecting to note that Al Qaeda put down roots in Iraq only after the invasion or that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 or Osama bin Laden. His description of Iraq's constitutional negotiations — "a difficult process that involves debate and compromise" — understates the depth of animosity in Iraq. On Monday, representatives submitted an incomplete draft to the National Assembly because of continued disagreement on basic issues such as the strength of a central government and the role of Islam.

The United States has 138,000 troops in Iraq; Bush said Monday that they'd come home when Iraqis "can defend their freedom" by taking more of the fight to the enemy. But he was silent on when that might be.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that the U.S. "should start figuring out how we get out of there" because American involvement "has destabilized the Middle East." That's a fair assessment. When Congress returns soon from recess, members who have heard an earful from their constituents about the war can be expected to demand a more coherent strategy. Even former supporters of the war, such as Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), are questioning the administration's plans; Jones has co-sponsored a resolution demanding a plan for withdrawal by the end of the year.

Setting a deadline now would be a mistake, allowing insurgents to wait for the U.S. withdrawal before increasing their suicide bombings. But the American presence cannot be open-ended; we need ways to measure progress. How many Iraqi police and troops must be trained and ready before substantial numbers of U.S. forces can start withdrawing?

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said Saturday that the Pentagon was making contingency plans to keep more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2009. It is a fantasy to think an all-volunteer force that's unable to meet goals for new enlistments can stay in Iraq in such numbers for so long.

Two weeks ago, Bush labeled as "speculation" statements by several top generals that they might recommend reducing the U.S. troop presence by about 30,000 in early 2006 if this year's constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections go well and Iraqi forces are progressing against the insurgency. Then, and again on Monday, Bush stated, "As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down."

But vague statements are not enough. As more Americans and Iraqis die, Washington and Baghdad need a plan to stem the chaos the U.S. unleashed with its invasion — a chaos that has given terrorists a new recruiting tool. Wishful thinking and stubborn optimism do not constitute a policy. The sooner realism prevails, complete with metrics for progress and consequences for those who fail to meet them, the better.