On a recent Sunday four men, stripped to their underpants, were paraded through the city on the back of a pickup truck. They were escorted by scores of masked men shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and their backs were bleeding from the 80 lashes each had received for selling alcohol. Later, they were treated at a hospital and released -- another example to the populace that things had radically changed.

Where has this happened, you're probably wondering? Well, it's Fallujah, the Iraqi city described by George Bush in the most serene terms in his address at the Army War College the other night. He mentioned the city when he said military commanders had exercised commendable restraint in not leveling the place after American contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge.

"We're making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah," the president told the nation. "Coalition commanders have worked with local leaders to create an all-Iraqi security force, which is now patrolling the city." But an Associated Press dispatch by Hamza Hendawi offers a different picture. The president's "all-Iraqi security force" has allowed Fallujah to become "an Islamic mini-state" -- complete with floggings and the usual restrictions on women. In this manner, it has been liberated from both the secular Saddam Hussein and the democratic Americans.

The contrast between what the president said and what the AP reported is jarring, but it is also somewhat typical. There was something detached about the president's address. Once again, for instance, he made Iraq the centerpiece of his war on terrorism when, as we all know by now, there was never a proven link between Hussein and al Qaeda. He went on in this vein nonetheless, not mentioning that it was weapons of mass destruction we were once after but, aside from a single trace of sarin uncovered recently and dating to before the Persian Gulf War, none have been found.

As for terrorism, the president made no mention of the apparent fact that the war in Iraq has proved a boon to terrorists. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the war has been a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Foreign fighters -- maybe as many as 1,000 of them -- have infiltrated Iraq, where they have been able to inflict casualties on American forces. They have made it even harder to bring Iraq under control and, in effect, have suckered the United States into the sort of guerrilla war we tried to avoid. In this respect, Iraq could wind up being an ambush.

On another matter, the president also talked as if he has been spending the past several weeks under the bed covers. He mentioned Abu Ghraib prison as "a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops," when it now seems that those "few" were either following orders or were operating with the silent approval of superiors who simply looked away from torture and abuse. The International Red Cross complained of this early on -- only to get a shrug from the military brass.

America is trapped. Having gone into Iraq, we cannot now pull out. In its own region, the country is more important than Vietnam ever was -- and not because it can become a democracy that will be emulated by others in the Middle East. It's rather that without an American military presence, Iraq will almost certainly fall into chaos, a bloody civil war that might well draw in its neighbors. Bad could turn out to be much worse.

But having said that, it's hard to feel confident that the Bush administration is prepared for the challenge ahead. It has been unforgivably incompetent so far, going to war for one reason, staying for another and layering contradictory facts with Sunday-school rhetoric. Fallujah, a compromised compromise, becomes a sterling success in the president's mouth. A systemic failure to abide by the Geneva Conventions becomes the kinky work of a few. The war over WMDs becomes one over terror. And Ahmed Chalabi, the erstwhile George Washington of Iraq, becomes Benedict Arnold virtually overnight. One moment he's Laura Bush's guest at the State of the Union speech; the next he's ranting anti-American screeds in Baghdad.

The Bush administration's rap on John Kerry is that he is inconsistent. The president's virtue, on the other hand, is supposedly his consistency. But to stick to the same rhetoric when the facts have changed, to insist on what is palpably false, to render black as white and to say it all with a childlike faith in civics class bromides is not commendable consistency. It is instead the mark of a narrow mind overwhelmed by large events.

cohenr@washpost.com