Mr. Bush Unvarnished

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH should hold more news conferences. In his hour-long exchange with reporters at the White House yesterday, he was considerably more effective in explaining and defending his commitment to the war in Iraq than in the three carefully worded speeches he has delivered in the past week. In his sometimes blunt, sometimes joking and sometimes unpolished way, he sounded authentic -- no more so than when he was asked what had become of the "political capital" he claimed after the 2004 election. "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war," Mr. Bush replied.

And so he is. The president's approval ratings are low and sinking, and Iraq is the main cause: Polls show most Americans no longer believe the war is worth the cost or expect the "victory" Mr. Bush's speechwriters keep promising. Republicans in Congress have joined Democrats in pressing for a major withdrawal of U.S. troops this year. Even senior military commanders appear more interested in justifying that drawdown than in defeating Iraqi insurgents.

Mr. Bush, however, hasn't lost sight of the stakes. "The enemy has said that it's just a matter of time before the United States loses its nerve and withdraws from Iraq. That is what they have said," he told reporters. "And their objective for driving us out of Iraq is to have a place from which to launch their campaign to overthrow moderate governments in the Middle East, as well as to continue attacking places like the United States. Now, maybe some discount those words as kind of meaningless propaganda. I don't. I take them really seriously."

The president's pitch to Americans centers on this threat from al-Qaeda, so much so that his speeches barely touch on the equally serious problem of the nascent civil war among Iraq's sectarian groups. Yet at his news conference Mr. Bush showed that he's worried about the civil conflict: At one point he said "the reports of bound Sunnis that were executed are horrific," adding that "it's obviously something we're going to have to deal with, and more importantly, the Iraqis are going to have to deal with it." In contrast to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as recently as December dismissed reports of Iraqi death squads as "unverified" and said U.S. forces should do nothing to stop them, Mr. Bush said yesterday that American troops should "support Iraqi troops if need be, to prevent sectarian violence from breaking out."

Much of the administration's approach in Iraq continues to strike us as feckless. Though he has been publicly calling on Iraqi politicians to form a unity government, Mr. Bush doesn't seem to be doing all he could to promote a deal; for example, there has been little visible effort to mobilize international pressure on the Iraqi parties. The focus on training Iraqi forces and consolidating U.S. bases since the December elections may have allowed Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists to regain ground, even in the city that Mr. Bush held up Monday as a model, Tall Afar. Though Iraqi power generation and oil production remain below prewar levels, the administration seems to have all but abandoned U.S.-financed reconstruction.

But the president clearly has not lost sight of the enormous importance of the Iraqi mission, to U.S. security as well as to his presidency. Pressed repeatedly to say when American forces would leave the country entirely, he finally answered: "That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Not the most politic response, perhaps, but one that shows Mr. Bush remains committed in the theater where U.S. commitment, and leadership, are still desperately needed.

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