In the last days of an election campaign that many will interpret as a referendum on the Iraq war, both the president of the United States and the prime minister of Iraq say they are dissatisfied with the state of things in that violence-beset country.
There have been several days of confusion as to whether the White House or the US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have set "timetables," or "deadlines" or "benchmarks," for faster progress to peace and stability.
But several things are clear.
For the Bush administration, it is "tough love" time in Iraq. After suffering major loss of American life in establishing the post-Saddam Hussein framework for democracy, President Bush wants the Iraqi government to do better in curbing sectarian violence, disarming factional militias, and preparing its own military and police to take over from the Americans.
For his part, Mr. Maliki bristles at the suggestion that he is an Ameri- can puppet, asserts that Iraq is a sovereign state, and charges that it is in fact the Americans who are lagging in supplying Iraqi security forces with required weaponry and turning over control of those forces to the Iraqi government.
It is a disturbing bout of finger-pointing between allies in the midst of warfare, which led to an extraordinary 50-minute video conference between the two leaders this past weekend. Whatever was said in private, they emerged asserting that they are "committed to the partnership" and will hasten steps to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces and the transfer of responsibility for security to the Iraqi government.
Maliki is reported to have said in the conference: "History will record that because of your efforts Iraq is a free country." The problem is that the US toppling of Mr. Hussein has indeed made possible a new constitution, free elections, and an elected parliament and government, but peace and stability are still denied by those who would subvert these steps along the road to an Iraqi model of democracy.
Next week's midterm elections in the US will be interpreted in part as a vote of confidence or no- confidence in the postwar conduct of the Bush administration in Iraq. Many, such as the president, are dissatisfied with the postwar situation. Major wars of the past, such as World War II and Korea, cost the US many more casualties than has Iraq, but generally had US public support. After World War II and Korea, large numbers of American troops were stationed for many years in Germany and South Korea and are still there today, again with little complaint from the American public.
But then came Vietnam, and for the first time, the US was confronted by unconventional guerrilla forces that hit and faded into the jungle. Now, in Iraq, un-uniformed, unconventional forces hit and fade into urban retreats. It is a difficult, and different, kind of warfare. It is a test of American fortitude and patience.
Traditionally, US elections are thought to be largely won or lost on the state of the economy. Currently, despite a falloff in real-estate values, the economy is strong, with a vigorous stock market and sturdy creation of new jobs. But foreign policy, not only involving Iraq, but also the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, has been a matter for debate between competing candidates in some constituencies.
The political temperature of the electorate will undoubtedly play into decisions to be made after the election results are in. James Baker, a respected Republican whose political acumen has played into the fortunes of both Bush presidents, will be presenting the recommendations of a task force on Iraq.
If new directions are recommended, there may be considerable fine-tuning of tactics, and high-level personnel changes. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose resignation has been resisted by Mr. Bush so far, may elect to resign gracefully. "Tough love" toward the Maliki government may get tougher if there is no sign that it is making crucial political and military decisions.
Bush has made it clear that there will be no precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq on his watch. That is a courageous decision. Given the American sacrifices so far, it would be a travesty to see Iraq lapse back into despotism. If democracy should flounder in Iraq it would also sadly be a deterrent to those who aspire to democracy elsewhere in the Arab world.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.