The issue is not whether President Bush has "made the case" for war in Iraq, but which Iraq war the president wants to fight. Even after this week's State of the Union address, we don't know.
Bush did make progress on one front. Up to now, those offhand comments he likes to make that drip with a self-involved swagger -- "This looks like a rerun of a bad movie" -- have only reinforced the cowboy stereotypes that undermine American credibility.
On Tuesday he put aside the John Wayne act -- one hopes for good. "This nation fights reluctantly," the president declared in the most effective portion of his address, "because we know the cost and we dread the days of mourning that always come."
But Bush still has a problem that goes beyond style: We don't know if this war is primarily about (1) taking weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam's Hussein's hands, or (2) removing Hussein from power, or (3) bringing democracy to Iraq and revolutionizing the politics of the Middle East.
Supporters of war argue that all three goals are compatible. In principle, they are. But because the administration has gone back and forth about which of these goals matters most and how they fit together, its policy has been open to easy challenge.
For example, if this war is only about weapons of mass destruction, then the doubters can keep arguing, plausibly, that as long as the inspectors are on the ground with the threat of force behind them, Hussein will be kept "in a box" and unable to threaten anybody. Why not postpone war as long as possible, especially as war could prod Hussein to use the very weapons we are trying to keep him from using?
If the war is about getting rid of Hussein, then all the arguments about weapons and inspectors are beside the point. Make no mistake: Bush is right about the brutality -- yes, evil -- of Hussein's regime. The best case for this war may be the humanitarian case, the need to rid the world of a tyrant whose regime, as Bush pointed out, tortures children while their parents are made to watch.
The problem, of course, is that Hussein is not the only tyrant the world could do without, and the United States is not prepared to launch a worldwide armed struggle against every dictator. And why would we not be satisfied with a coup that kicked Hussein out even if it brought in another dictator, but one willing to do our bidding where weapons are concerned?
Those who advocate the full-blown strategy of using change in Iraq to transform the Middle East would certainly not be satisfied with such a coup. Their idealistic conception, most forcefully propounded by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, rests on the faith -- the right word -- that American power can install democracy in Iraq and thereby encourage democratic change in other Arab countries. This vision sees the Middle East as in such a mess that giving the region a violent shake is well worth the risk -- and may be essential to working out an enduring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
If Bush wants support for war, from Americans and from our allies, he needs to tell us which of these wars he proposes to fight. He needs the credibility that would come from candor about American objectives.
As it is, the administration is willing to grasp whatever evidence it can get its hands on to justify a course that seems to have been set long ago. In particular, the administration's relentless effort to insist on some link between Hussein and al Qaeda, no matter what the facts showed at a given time, looks more like a public relations stunt than an honest effort to establish the truth. We already know the administration was willing to go to war with Iraq with or without evidence linking Hussein to 9/11. Bringing al Qaeda back into the picture whenever the polls show sagging public support for Bush's policy does nothing to build trust.
And if our real goal is to transform Iraq and the Middle East, this war is far bigger than the administration is suggesting. It will require a very long commitment of American troops and a lot of help from our allies.
If, as appears to be the case, the administration is split over whether this war is to be transformative or a one-shot blow against Hussein, the president had better decide which way he wants to go before the war starts. And he needs to make his choices public. Our allies need to know. So do the American people.