Christmas Eve of Destruction

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

December 23, 2004

In Iraq, as Yogi Berra would say, the future ain't what it used to be.

Now that the election's over, our leaders think it's safe to experiment with a little candor.

President Bush has finally acknowledged that the Iraqis can't hack it as far as securing their own country, which means, of course, that America has no exit strategy for its troops, who will soon number 150,000.

News organizations led with the story, even though the president was only saying something that everybody has known to be true for a year. The White House's policy on Iraq has gone from a total charade to a limited modified hangout. Mr. Bush is conceding the obvious, that the Iraqi security forces aren't perfect, so he doesn't have to concede the truth: that Iraq is now so dire no one knows how or when we can get out.

If this fiasco ever made sense to anybody, it doesn't any more.

John McCain, who lent his considerable credibility to Mr. Bush during the campaign and vouched for the president and his war, now concedes that he has no confidence in Donald Rumsfeld.

And Rummy admitted yesterday that his feelings got hurt when people accused him of being insensitive to the fact that he arrogantly sent his troops into a sinkhole of carnage - a vicious, persistent insurgency - without the proper armor, equipment, backup or preparation.

The subdued defense chief further admitted that despite all the American kids who gave their lives in Mosul on the cusp of Christmas, battling an enemy they can't see in a war fought over weapons that didn't exist, we're not heading toward the democratic halcyon Mr. Bush promised.

"I think looking for a peaceful Iraq after the elections would be a mistake," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

His disgraceful admission that his condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq were signed by machine - "I have directed that in the future I sign each letter," he said in a Strangelovian statement - is redolent of the myopia that has led to the dystopia.

The Bushies are betting a lot on the January election, even though a Shiite-dominated government will further alienate the Sunnis - and even though Iraq may be run by an Iranian-influenced ayatollah. That would mean that Iraq would have a leadership legitimized by us to hate us.

International election observers say it's too dangerous to actually come in and monitor the vote in person; they're going to "assess" the vote from the safety of Amman, Jordan. Isn't that like refereeing a football game while sitting in a downtown bar?

The administration hopes that once the Iraqis understand they have their own government, that will be a turning point and they will realize their country is worth fighting for. But this is the latest in a long list of turning points that turn out to be cul-de-sacs.

From the capture of Saddam to the departure of Paul Bremer and the assault on Falluja, there have been many false horizons for peace.

The U.S. military can't even protect our troops when they're eating lunch in a supposedly secure space - even after the Mosul base commanders had been warned of a "Beirut-style" attack three weeks before - because the Iraqi security forces and support staff have been infiltrated by insurgency spies.

Each milestone, each thing that is supposed to enable us to get some traction and change the basic dynamic in Iraq, comes and goes without the security getting any better. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that a major U.S. contractor, Contrack International Inc., had dropped out of the multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq, "raising new worries about the country's growing violence and its effect on reconstruction."

The Bush crowd thought it could get in, get out, scare the Iranians and Syrians, and remove the bulk of our forces within several months.

But now we're in, and it's the allies, contractors and election watchdogs who want out.

Aside from his scintilla of candor, Mr. Bush is still not leveling with us. As he said at his press conference on Monday, "the enemies of freedom" know that "a democratic Iraq will be a decisive blow to their ambitions because free people will never choose to live in tyranny."

They may choose to live in a theocracy, though. Americans did.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com