Dangerous Incompetence

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

June 30, 2005

The president who displayed his contempt for Iraqi militants two years ago with the taunt "bring 'em on" had to go on television Tuesday night to urge Americans not to abandon support for the war that he foolishly started but can't figure out how to win.

The Bush crowd bristles at the use of the "Q-word" - quagmire - to describe American involvement in Iraq. But with our soldiers fighting and dying with no end in sight, who can deny that Mr. Bush has gotten us into "a situation from which extrication is very difficult," which is a standard definition of quagmire?

More than 1,730 American troops have already died in Iraq. Some were little more than children when they signed up for the armed forces, like Ramona Valdez, who grew up in the Bronx and was just 17 when she joined the Marines. She was one of six service members, including four women, who were killed when a suicide bomber struck their convoy in Falluja last week.

Corporal Valdez wasn't even old enough to legally drink in New York. She died four days shy of her 21st birthday.

On July 2, 2003, with evidence mounting that U.S. troop strength in Iraq was inadequate, Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House, "There are some who feel that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, Bring 'em on."

It was an immature display of street-corner machismo that appalled people familiar with the agonizing ordeals of combat. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: "I am shaking my head in disbelief. When I served in the Army in Europe during World War II, I never heard any military commander - let alone the commander in chief - invite enemies to attack U.S. troops."

The American death toll in Iraq at that point was about 200, but it was clear that a vicious opposition was developing. Mr. Bush had no coherent strategy for defeating the insurgency then, and now - more than 1,500 additional deaths later - he still doesn't.

The incompetence at the highest levels of government in Washington has undermined the U.S. troops who have fought honorably and bravely in Iraq, which is why the troops are now stuck in a murderous quagmire. If a Democratic administration had conducted a war this incompetently, the Republicans in Congress would be dusting off their impeachment manuals.

The administration seems to have learned nothing in the past two years. Dick Cheney, who told us the troops would be "greeted as liberators," now assures us that the insurgency is in its last throes. And the president, who never listened to warnings that he was going to war with too few troops, still refuses to acknowledge that there are not enough U.S. forces deployed to pacify Iraq.

The Times's Richard A. Oppel Jr. wrote an article recently about a tragically common occurrence in Iraq: U.S. forces fight to free cities and towns from the grip of insurgents, and then leave. With insufficient forces left behind to secure the liberated areas, the insurgents return.

"We have a finite number of troops," said Maj. Chris Kennedy of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. "But if you pull out of an area and don't leave security forces in it, all you're going to do is leave the door open for them to come back. This is what our lack of combat power has done to us throughout the country."

The latest fantasy out of Washington is that American-trained Iraqi forces will ultimately be able to do what the American forces have not: defeat the insurgency and pacify Iraq.

"We've learned that Iraqis are courageous and that they need additional skills," said Mr. Bush in his television address. "And that is why a major part of our mission is to train them so they can do the fighting, and then our troops can come home."

Don't hold your breath. This is another example of the administration's inability to distinguish between a strategy and a wish.

Whether one agreed with the launch of this war or not - and I did not - the troops doing the fighting deserve to be guided by leaders in Washington who are at least minimally competent at waging war. That has not been the case, which is why we can expect to remain stuck in this tragic quagmire for the foreseeable future.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

David Brooks is on vacation.