No End in Sight in Iraq

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

August 11, 2005

The news coming out of Iraq yesterday was that several more American soldiers had been killed. August's toll so far has been mind-numbing. For American troops, it's been one of the worst periods of the war. And yet there's still no sense of urgency within the Bush administration.

The president is on vacation. He's down at the ranch riding his bicycle and clearing brush. The death toll for Americans has streaked past the 1,800 mark. The Iraqi dead are counted by the tens of thousands. But if Mr. Bush has experienced any regret about the carnage he set in motion when he launched the war, he's not showing it.

Writing about Vietnam in the foreword to David Halberstam's book "The Best and the Brightest," Senator John McCain said:

"It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn't support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay."

That point is no less relevant now. The administration is not willing to commit to an all-out effort to defeat the insurgents in Iraq, and is equally unwilling to reverse course and bring the troops home. Most Americans are abandoning the idea that the war can be "won." Polls are showing that they're tired of the conflict and its relentlessly mounting toll. It's hard to imagine that the population at large will be willing to sacrifice thousands of additional American lives over several more years in pursuit of goals that remain as murky as ever.

Ask a thousand different suits in Washington why we're in Iraq and you'll get a thousand different answers. Ask how we plan to win the war, and you'll get a blank stare.

Administration types and high-ranking members of the military have recently been teasing the media and the public with comments that are designed to give the impression that substantial numbers of American troops could be brought home next year.

Not only are these comments hedged with every imaginable caveat - if the transition to a permanent government goes smoothly, and if the Iraqis prove capable of providing their own security - but they are coming at a time when the U.S. is planning to increase American troop strength in Iraq in anticipation of elections scheduled for December.

I wouldn't schedule any homecoming rallies just yet, not with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warning that the current horrific violence may well escalate as the elections approach. And no one believes that the Iraqi security forces will be up to the task of securing the country any time soon.

When asked on Tuesday about a possible exit strategy for American troops, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters it depended on many "variables," including:

"What are the Iranians doing? Are they going to be helpful or unhelpful? And if they're increasingly unhelpful, then obviously the conditions on the ground are less advantageous. Same thing with the Syrians."

Got that?

When Lyndon Johnson sent American troops into the flaming disaster of Vietnam he had no real strategy, no plan for winning the war. The idea, more or less, was that our boys, tougher and much better equipped, would beat their boys. Case closed. Fifty-eight thousand American troops succumbed to this schoolyard fantasy.

George W. Bush has no strategy, no real plan, for winning the war in Iraq. So we're stuck in a murderous quagmire without even the suggestion of an end in sight.

The administration has never been straight with the public about the war, and there's no reason to believe it will start being honest now. There is a desperate need for a serious national conversation about alternatives to the Bush approach in Iraq, which is tantamount to a permanent American military presence in that country.

The president, ensconced in a long vacation, exemplifies the vacuum of leadership on this crucial issue, which demands nothing less than the sustained attention of the wisest men and women the U.S. has to offer. They could be politicians, academics, civic or religious leaders, corporate executives - whoever. The longer they remain on the sidelines, the longer the carnage in Iraq will continue.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com