Defining Victory Down

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

January 9, 2005

WASHINGTON

The president prides himself on being a pig-headed guy. He is determined to win in Iraq even if he is not winning in Iraq.

So get ready for a Mohammedan mountain of spin defining victory down. Come what may - civil war over oil, Iranian-style fatwas du jour or men on prayer rugs reciting the Koran all day on the Iraqi TV network our own geniuses created - this administration will call it a triumph.

Even for a White House steeped in hooey, it's a challenge. President Bush will have to emulate the parsing and prevaricating he disdained in his predecessor: It depends on what the meaning of the word "win" is.

The president's still got a paper bag over his head, claiming that the daily horrors out of Iraq reflect just a few soreheads standing in the way of a glorious democracy, even though his commander of ground forces there concedes that the areas where more than half of Iraqis live are not secure enough for them to vote - an acknowledgment that the insurgency is resilient and growing. It's like saying Montana and North Dakota are safe to vote, but New York, Philadelphia and L.A. are not. What's a little disenfranchisement among friends?

"I know it's hard, but it's hard for a reason," Mr. Bush said on Friday, a day after seven G.I.'s and two marines died. "And the reason it's hard is because there are a handful of folks who fear freedom." If it's just a handful, how come it's so hard?

Then the president added: "And I look at the elections as a - as a - you know, as a - as - as a historical marker for our Iraq policy."

Well, that's clear. Mr. Bush is huddled in his bubble, but he's in a pickle. The administration that had no plan for what to do with Iraq when it got it, now has no plan for getting out.

The mood in Washington about our misadventure seemed to grow darker last week, maybe because lawmakers were back after visiting with their increasingly worried constituents and - even more alarming - visiting Iraq, where you still can't drive from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone without fearing for your life.

"It's going to be ugly," Joe Biden told Charlie Rose about the election.

The arrogant Bush war council never admits a mistake. Paul Wolfowitz, a walking mistake, said on Friday he's been asked to remain in the administration. But the "idealists," as the myopic dunderheads think of themselves, are obviously worried enough, now that Mr. Bush is safely re-elected, to let a little reality seep in. Rummy tapped a respected retired four-star general to go to Iraq this week for an open-ended review of the entire military meshugas.

Mr. Wolfowitz, who devised the debacle in Iraq, is kept on, while Brent Scowcroft, Poppy Bush's lieutenant who warned Junior not to go into Iraq, is pushed out as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. That's the backward nature of this beast: Deceive, you're golden; tell the truth, you're gone.

Mr. Scowcroft was not deterred. Like Banquo's ghost, he clanked around last week, disputing the president's absurdly sunny forecasts for Iraq, and noting dryly that this administration had turned the word "realist" into a "pejorative." He predicted that the elections "have the great potential for deepening the conflict" by exacerbating the divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He worried that there would be "an incipient civil war," and said the best chance for the U.S. to avoid anarchy was to turn over the operation to the less inflammatory U.N. or NATO.

Mr. Scowcroft appeared at the New America Foundation with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, who declared the Iraq war a moral, political and military failure. If we can't send 500,000 troops, spend $500 billion and agree to resume the draft, then the conflict should be "terminated," he said, adding that far from the Jeffersonian democracy Mr. Bush extols, the most we can hope for is a Shiite-controlled theocracy.

The Iraqi election that was meant to be the solution to the problem - like the installation of a new Iraqi government and the transfer of sovereignty and all the other steps that were supposed to make things better - may actually be making things worse. The election is going to expand the control of the Shiite theocrats, even beyond what their numbers would entitle them to have, because of the way the Bush team has set it up and the danger that if you're a Sunni, the vote you cast may be your last.

It is a lesson never learned: Matters of state and the heart that start with a lie rarely end well.