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Seriously Misspoken

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Okay, now they're just making stuff up. George W. Bush went on television Sunday and claimed that on Iraq war policy, "We've never been 'stay the course' " -- as if no record survived of all the times he has used those very words. Maybe he was trying to outdo Dick Cheney, who went on the radio last week and proclaimed that the beleaguered Iraqi government is doing "remarkably well."

Cheney's well-hidden sense of humor must be tremendously subtle. I can only assume that "remarkably well" was his version of the old joke about the man who falls off a 20-story building and, as he passes each floor on the way down, is heard to call out, "So far, so good!"

I'm fairly sure that the president and the vice president of the United States haven't completely lost touch with reality. I can't believe that Bush has forgotten making "stay the course" a Republican midterm election mantra, the counterpoint to the "cut and run" label he is trying to hang on the Democrats. And someone must have summoned the courage to tell Cheney that more than 85 American troops have been killed in Iraq so far in October, making it the deadliest month for U.S. forces in a year.

If Bush and Cheney were being sincere, then they're lying to themselves; if not, they're lying to the rest of us. My money is on the latter.

One administration functionary who told the truth about Iraq had to quickly apologize for his candor. Alberto Fernandez, the State Department official in charge of public diplomacy for the Middle East, said on the al-Jazeera television network that the United States had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq. The interview was broadcast Saturday; by Sunday, the State Department's Web site was quoting Fernandez as saying he "seriously misspoke" and as disowning his perfectly accurate remarks. I imagine Fernandez is already packing for his new job as deputy assistant consul general somewhere in the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan.

The White House is still trying to shore up and defend a rhetorical Maginot Line that was overrun long ago, erased by implacable insurgents, sectarian militias, revanchist claimants to Iraq's vast oil wealth and Iraqi government officials whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the United States.

By now it has become obvious even to some of the administration's staunchest supporters that the Iraq war is a disaster. Republican incumbents who have to face the voters two weeks from now, especially, are seeing the war in a new light. The president was wrong the other day when he allowed that there might be a parallel between the current escalation of violence and the pivotal Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Tet began to shift public opinion against the Vietnam quagmire; in the case of Iraq, most Americans already oppose the war.

The president keeps saying that U.S. forces will stay in Iraq until we "get the job done," but no one knows anymore what that job might be. Does anyone still think a Western-style democracy is going to come out of this mess? Can anyone be sure that the Iraqi forces we're training and arming won't splinter into groups that defend their own parochial interests? Is anyone confident that if a government strong enough to control the whole country finally emerges, the new Iraq will even be a reliable ally of the United States?

By now it's shared wisdom -- outside of the White House, the Pentagon and perhaps the innermost precincts of Baghdad's Green Zone -- that there are no good options in Iraq, just bad ones. Setting deadlines for the Iraqi government to establish order and make painful political compromises isn't really a plan; it's a wish. Splitting the country into three parts would create a horrible mess. Pulling all U.S. forces out now would leave a horrible mess. Pulling all U.S. forces out a year from now would leave, yes, a horrible mess.

The least unattractive option is probably some sort of phased withdrawal. There is no justification for continuing to sacrifice American troops when no attainable goal is in sight.

The truth is that "the job," to the extent that Bush has been able to define it, almost certainly will never get done. The question is how many more American and Iraqi lives will be lost before the president admits it, drops all the bluster and acknowledges what Americans already know: "I made a mistake."

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