Defining victory in Iraq, finally

Nearly 1,000 days into the Iraq war, President Bush again opened fire on a key front: American opinion. In a speech Wednesday and with a 35-page report, Mr. Bush finally defined his terms for victory. His critical victory: sustaining public support.

It's about time. Losing on the homefront, as Mr. Bush has done since the March 2003 invasion, has been a dreaded war scenario for the Pentagon since Vietnam. Even though the president has made much progress in building a democracy and rebuilding Iraq, he's been failing in what the report ("Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq") regards as a major goal: preventing a US surrender through dwindling political will and thus allowing the insurgents to win.

Leaving behind a stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East - one able to defend itself - was always one of the war's goals. But it's become too undefined for an impatient public, especially since, prewar, that goal was overshadowed by hyper statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and then mass letdown over their nondiscovery.

The war was also compounded by a hydra-headed insurgency that fed off both the US presence as well as a seemingly endless Sunni-Shiite rivalry that's left doubts about any political glue of Iraqi nationalism.

The report, an unclassified version of an administration operating document, provides greater specificity in benchmarks to achieve a stable, defensible Iraqi democracy, one that can safely ask US troops to go home - the ultimate benchmark for victory. Now those benchmarks will become useful fodder for the 2006 congressional election campaigns, which can influence whether support for the war rises - or continues to fall.

Bush is on his final offensive in the war for public opinion, a "war" that's really over a perception gap between media portrayal of Iraq and what the US military and Iraqi leaders are saying about progress there.

The report's crucial benchmarks lie in the quantity and quality of Iraqi security forces. By the numbers, the Army and police forces appear on track to allow the start of US military withdrawal next year. There are, for instance, more than 120 functioning Iraqi Army and police battalions, controlling key cities and fighting insurgents.

The almost unmeasurable test, however, will come next year when those forces must sustain professional military behavior by strict obedience to a central government elected on Dec. 15 - and not splinter along religious or ethnic lines. Will a dangerous level of troops become local militias, beholden to sectarian leaders, or even insurgent interests?

A unified, elected government that respects minority interests, distributes oil profits fairly, and supplies basic services will help sustain professionalism in the security forces. The Bush strategy tries to lay out the sequence of putting those pieces of the puzzle together. But what will be needed as the US military drawdown begins are credible reports about the mood, mistakes, and misdeeds of the Iraqi police and Army.

Victory should be defined two-fold: the rising success of Iraqi forces and the American people's faith in Bush's reporting on his own benchmarks of success. So far, only the first one appears on track.•

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