PRESIDENT BUSH sought last night to bolster slipping public support for the war in Iraq by connecting it, once again, to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to the war against terrorism. That connection is not spurious, even if Saddam Hussein was not a collaborator of al Qaeda: Clearly Iraq is now a prime battlefield for Islamic extremists, and success or failure there will do much to determine the outcome of the larger struggle against them. But Mr. Bush didn't explain how a war meant to remove a tyrant believed to wield weapons of mass destruction turned into a fight against Muslim militants, a transformation caused in part by his administration's many errors since Saddam Hussein's defeat more than two years ago. The president also didn't speak candidly enough about the primary mission the United States now has in Iraq, which is not "hunting down the terrorists" but constructing a stable government in spite of Iraq's sectarian divisions and violent resistance from the former ruling elite. It's harder to explain why Americans should die in such a complex and ambitious enterprise than in a fight with international terrorists, but that is the case Mr. Bush most needs to make.
When he did turn to Iraq's reconstruction Mr. Bush mostly described the bright side of a very mixed picture. While acknowledging that "our progress has been uneven," his dominant theme was success: in training Iraqi security forces, holding elections and promoting political accord. The progress he described is genuine, as is the reality that the United States has no reasonable alternative to continuing to support the construction of a representative Iraqi government. Mr. Bush rightly argued that a deadline for withdrawal would be a "serious mistake."
Once again, however, the president missed an opportunity to fully level with Americans, even though some of the hard truths he elided have been spelled out by his aides and senior military commanders. The insurgency, they have said, is not growing weaker; most likely, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, it will never be defeated by American troops, and it will continue for many more years. Iraqi troops probably will not be ready to take over from U.S. units for several years, at least. For now, the combined U.S.-Iraqi force is nowhere near large enough to hold territory taken from the insurgents or to secure the country's borders. Yet Army and Marine units are being pressed into their third tours of duty, even as recruitment of fresh soldiers at home lags badly.
Mr. Bush's account of his strategy for Iraq, which has remained virtually unchanged in the past year, doesn't answer the worrying questions raised by these facts. How will the insurgency be contained during the considerable time it will take to prepare Iraqi troops? How will the Army and Marines manage years more of heavy deployments while addressing their recruitment problems? And how will continued heavy spending on the war affect the federal budget and domestic priorities? The president's evasion of the hardest facts about Iraq is coupled with a reluctance to candidly describe the likely price of success -- though Mr. Bush did make an appeal last night for military service.
Fortunately, most Americans appear to have a hardheaded appreciation of the problems and stakes in Iraq. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that most do not believe the administration's claims of progress, but a majority still is willing to support an extended stay by U.S. forces. If those forces are to succeed in the difficult months and years ahead, Mr. Bush will need to preserve and nourish that fragile mandate -- which will mean speaking more honestly to Americans than he did last night.