President Bush told the nation last night that the war in Iraq was difficult but winnable. Only the first is clearly true. Despite buoyant cheerleading by administration officials, the military situation is at best unimproved. The Iraqi Army, despite Mr. Bush's optimistic descriptions, shows no signs of being able to control the country without American help for years to come. There are not enough American soldiers to carry out the job they have been sent to do, yet the strain of maintaining even this inadequate force is taking a terrible toll on the ability of the United States to defend its security on other fronts around the world.
We did not expect Mr. Bush would apologize for the misinformation that helped lead us into this war, or for the catastrophic mistakes his team made in running the military operation. But we had hoped he would resist the temptation to raise the bloody flag of 9/11 over and over again to justify a war in a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks. We had hoped that he would seize the moment to tell the nation how he will define victory, and to give Americans a specific sense of how he intends to reach that goal - beyond repeating the same wishful scenario that he has been describing since the invasion.
Sadly, Mr. Bush wasted his opportunity last night, giving a speech that only answered questions no one was asking. He told the nation, again and again, that a stable and democratic Iraq would be worth American sacrifices, while the nation was wondering whether American sacrifices could actually produce a stable and democratic Iraq.
Given the way this war was planned and executed, the president does not have any good options available, and if American forces were withdrawn, Iraq would probably sink into a civil war that would create large stretches of no man's land where private militias and stateless terrorists could operate with impunity. But if Mr. Bush is intent on staying the course, it will take years before the Iraqi government and its military are able to stand on their own. Most important of all - despite his lofty assurance last night that in the end the insurgents "cannot stop the advance of freedom" - all those years of effort and suffering could still end with the Iraqis turning on each other, or deciding that the American troops were the ultimate enemy after all. The critical challenge is to gauge, with a clear head, exactly when and if the tipping point arrives and the American presence is only making a terrible situation worse.
Mr. Bush has been under pressure, even from some Republicans, to come up with a timeline for an exit. It makes no sense to encourage the insurrectionists by telling them that if their suicide bombers continue to blow themselves up at the current rate, the Americans will be leaving in six months or a year. It is Iraq's elected officials, who desperately need an American presence, who have to be told that Washington's support isn't open-ended.
The elected government is the only hope, but its current performance is far from promising. While the support of the Shiite's powerful Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for the democratic elections was heartening, the Shiite majority in Parliament is mainly composed of religious parties competing to demonstrate that they have the ayatollah's ear. The Kurds continue to put broader national interests behind their own goal of an autonomous ministate that would include the oil fields of Kirkuk. The Sunnis, who boycotted the election, are only now being brought into the constitution-writing effort and so far have made no real effort to mobilize against the terrorists in their midst.
Pressure from the Bush administration for the government to do better has increased since the State Department took control of Iraq policy from the Pentagon. But there is much more to do, and the president needed to show the American people that he is not giving the Iraqi politicians a blank check to fritter away their opportunities.
Listening to Mr. Bush offer the usual emotional rhetoric about the advance of freedom and the sacrifice of American soldiers, our thoughts went back to some of the letters we received in anticipation of the speech. One was from the brother of a fallen Marine, who said he did not want Mr. Bush to say the war should continue in order to keep faith with the men and women who have died fighting it. "We do not need more justifications for the war. We need an effective strategy to win it," he wrote. Another letter came from an opponent of the invasion who urged the American left to "get over its anger over President Bush's catastrophic blunder" and start trying to figure out how to win the conflict that exists.
No one wants a disaster in Iraq, and Mr. Bush's critics can put aside, at least temporarily, their anger at the administration for its hubris, its terrible planning and its inept conduct of the war in return for a frank discussion of where to go from here. The president, who is going to be in office for another three and a half years, cannot continue to obsess about self-justification and the need to color Iraq with the memory of 9/11. The nation does not want it and cannot afford it.