WHILE PRESIDENT Bush was expansively describing his domestic agenda for the next four years on Thursday, U.S. and Iraqi troops were massing outside Fallujah, and artillery and airstrikes were laying the groundwork for what may be a bloody and fateful battle. The contrast is telling: Whatever the president's ambitions, the truth is that his second term, and his legacy, probably will be dominated by Iraq. Before Mr. Bush leaves office, Iraq could acquire a representative government and a measure of stability, or it could slip into a sinkhole of anarchy and terrorism. Its direction may be set during the next several months. So while Mr. Bush may be eager to begin work on reforming Social Security and the tax system, there is an urgent need for him to address the critical challenges in Iraq -- and to do so with a willingness to face reality that was missing during his reelection campaign.
The first problem is Fallujah, where the Iraqi government and U.S. forces confront the problem of how to defeat entrenched Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists without provoking a larger national uprising or a crippling political backlash. Military action is overdue to eliminate Fallujah as a base for the Zarqawi terrorist organization that is allied with al Qaeda. But the political challenge was highlighted by the release Friday of an inappropriate and counterproductive letter from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who -- no doubt seeking to provide cover for himself and his anemic U.N. mission in Iraq -- appealed to Mr. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi not to carry out an offensive.
Mr. Bush had a chance to explain at his news conference Thursday why a battle in Fallujah was necessary, but merely choked out a few words to the effect that "some of these people have to, must be, defeated." He and Mr. Allawi must do better. There should be an aggressive effort to make clear to Iraqis and their Arab neighbors -- not to mention Americans -- why a Fallujah operation is necessary, and what it is meant to achieve. There must be a quick, massive and highly visible effort to provide humanitarian support to noncombatants in Fallujah and to launch reconstruction once government forces regain control.
Success in Fallujah would merely open the way to the next major hurdle, which is the staging of elections in January. Mr. Bush insisted during his campaign that the elections would go forward, but he never addressed some of the serious issues they raise: Can they be held throughout the country? If large parts of Sunni Iraq are excluded or boycott the voting, will an election improve or worsen the situation? Will Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, tolerate a delay? The administration appears to agree with Mr. Allawi that even partial elections in January would be preferable to none. But again, it needs to seek Iraqi and international support for its plan and to muster more military, technical and economic resources to ensure that as many Iraqis as possible participate.
This raises a third major task for Mr. Bush, which is to mobilize, finally, broad international support for Iraq. At the moment it appears that the U.S.-led coalition is thinning rather than growing: Several nations have announced that their troops will leave next year, and more will soon follow if there is no change in U.S. diplomacy. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to lead, at last, a conference of Iraq and its neighbors this month. But much more needs to be done by Mr. Annan and the United Nations, which has fallen grievously short of the role laid out for it in Security Council resolutions, and by Mr. Bush. It is not too late for the president to reach out genuinely to Arab and European governments and invite them to join in a fresh, common effort to stabilize Iraq. Without such help -- and a renewed commitment of his administration's attention -- his chances of success in the critical months to come look alarmingly small.