Bush's Benchmarks for Iraq

First one: Better persuasion at home, please

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The American course in Iraq - which, since 2003, has zigged and zagged like a Humvee in a minefield - will have more success if President Bush displays better powers of persuasion back home.

Public support for a victory and the 140,000 US troops in Iraq cannot wane if Mr. Bush's myriad goals are to be met. His speech on Tuesday, aimed at lifting sagging polls, revealed yet another shift by Bush to justify this open-ended conflict. And it was also hardly the kind of stirring pitch that's needed to sustain popular support against the media's daily images of bombings, body bags, and burials.

The very fact that the president had to ask young Americans to enlist shows a lack of leadership so far in rallying people to a wartime cause.

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The war's most public justification - eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - proved to be as illusory as a desert mirage. The chances of Saddam Hussein slipping a weapon to Al Qaeda, although possible and worrisome, proved slim at best. The final official report on that score, however, did find Mr. Hussein had the capacity and intent to restore his stockpiles, which he had already shown a willingness to use.

Democracy as a model

A less-touted reason given by Bush before the war - to implant a democracy as a model for ending autocratic, Middle East regimes that now breed terrorists - has only lately gained prominence. And for a while after the Jan. 30 elections, which saw millions of ink-fingered Iraqis relish a first step of civic liberty and other steps toward democracy in the region, there was hope of imminent sea change.

But the arduous task of creating a constitutional Iraqi government from scratch has been slow and not fully embraced by an American democracy that itself has become impatient with long-term goals and has grown more divisive under the uncompromising partisanship of current US politics.

Now it's 'take war to the enemy'

A third prewar justification - one more related to Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda than Iraq and eliminating Hussein - was to take the fight to the enemy. It's now risen to the top of Bush's list of reasons to be in Iraq. Today, Iraq has become the place where, Bush said, terrorists "are making their stand." Indeed, an odd mix of militants - from anti-Shiite Sunnis to Al Qaeda-tied fighters to other Islamic fighters - has arisen in Iraq like flies to honey. Not by design, the invasion has mixed a civil war with an international war on terrorism.

Total US victory unlikely in Iraq

The US military presence itself, as a recent CIA report found, has also helped recruit many new terrorists from other lands, perhaps leading to problems elsewhere in the future struggle. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now says the US will probably withdraw before the terrorists in Iraq are fully defeated, leaving Iraqi forces to finish the task.

The administration's bungling during the immediate postwar occupation did make things worse. It helped breed resentment among Sunnis, who then began supporting foreign jihadists. Bush would gain more US support by admitting that. Instead, he paints all such fighters as a seamless enemy that will only grow stronger if the US retreats prematurely.

He's right that the US can't retreat, but the enemy is hardly seamless. Sunni insurgents are likely to be slowly beaten or won over by a more inclusive Iraq government. And Bush needs to push Muslim leaders to stick their necks out more and condemn the beheadings and suicide-bombings by jihadists. Killing terrorists is one thing, but the best course is to isolate them politically or morally.

The president's argument that the US is fighting for its own security and for freedom isn't enough. Nor is it enough to call for the US to show tenacity. What's needed is an America united against the immoral tactic of using the mass murder of civilians in the name of Islam or to restore a dictatorship. That can sustain the US in Iraq.

Iraqis themselves, by steadily uniting behind their young democracy and by eagerly signing up to fight terrorists, are proving to Americans that they want to take a moral stand. (More Iraqi security forces have been killed than American soldiers since Hussein was toppled.) Bush set those actions in motion, but he's been lax in persuading Americans to sustain that high moral ground. One or two speeches a year doesn't cut it.

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