President Bush shifted to a more realistic vision of what he can achieve in Iraq in deft and deniable fashion in his address to the nation Tuesday night. As Bush's changing of gears -- but not of direction -- is more widely understood, it is likely to reassure Americans and deeply trouble Iraqi democrats.
The new emphasis on leaving behind a workable Iraq rather than staying until that Arab nation has become a model of democracy for the entire region was captured in the president's pledge to "prevent al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban -- a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends."
That is a relatively modest goal compared with the lofty ambition to put freedom on the march that Bush has laid out in the past. He is not renouncing such ambitions -- indeed, he should not -- but he did begin speaking to the American public more realistically about applying them in Iraq in his speech at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
But that is only part of the effort the administration needs to make. The president also needs to speak more frequently and honestly to his real allies in Iraq, who will have some uncomfortable but valuable things to tell him if they believe he is listening.
One of the greatest handicaps the administration still confronts is a self-imposed refusal to listen to Iraqis about doing things the Iraqi way. From trying to build a new Iraqi army on U.S. specifications and prejudices to preferring to contract with foreigners rather than employ Iraqis, U.S. officials have often made the perfect the enemy of the good.
Iraqi concern on that score could be exacerbated by the president's heavy emphasis Tuesday on fighting terrorists in Iraq so that Americans don't have to fight them on U.S. soil. That may help steady public support here -- no American can argue with that aim -- but it is a shifting of the goal posts from liberating Iraq from tyranny. Bush should have done more Tuesday to show that his anti-terrorism objectives are compatible with Iraqi needs.
The care that needs to be exercised to keep American and Iraqi support for Bush's Iraq policies in sync is underlined by the reports of contacts between representatives of guerrilla groups and U.S. military officers and diplomats. Such contacts are not new. They parallel similar efforts by Iraqi authorities. But the reports come at a delicate time for the interim Iraqi administration that emerged from the Jan. 30 elections.
Iraqi authorities are struggling to take on greater authority and responsibility in security matters. That effort both permits and requires a new sophistication by Washington in dealing with friends and foes in Iraq, and knowing the difference.
Efforts by Ayad Allawi to cut deals with his former Baathist associates for a possible return to authoritarian rule in Iraq -- criticized at the time in this column -- have given way to the constitution-writing and politically inclusive efforts that are being undertaken today by Iraqis serving under Ibrahim Jafari, who was elected prime minister by a Kurdish-Shiite coalition in April.
Allawi, who was promoted by U.S. authorities to be prime minister in May 2004, loved power as much as President Bush loved Allawi's tough-guy swagger and his praise of Bush's leadership. Allawi visited Washington last September wearing a bandage on his right hand, which he said he had injured by pounding a conference table to make a point. Baghdad lore attributed the injury to Allawi's striking an aide in a fit of anger.
It is hard to imagine Jafari, who paid his first visit to Washington last week, ever pounding a table, an aide or anything else. He is more a will-o'-the-wisp, seeming to fade away before your eyes as he spins out elegant but noncommittal statements to deflect almost any problem or challenge you raise.
But he was welcomed to the White House very much as Allawi had been -- more as a symbol than as a leader able and willing to push for the course corrections that are urgently needed on the training and equipping of Iraqi forces. U.S. officials in Iraq still resist briefing Iraqi civilian leaders on active military operations, and in some cases they resist turning over real sovereignty and responsibility to the Iraqis.
Talk to Sunni rebel forces? By all means, as long as the subject is Sunni acceptance of a new constitutional order in which they participate but do not dominate. The new constitution should be a de facto political version of the consequential surrenders that did not occur on the battlefields in 1991 or 2003 -- fundamental errors that are still to be corrected.