The speech that wasn’t to define a strategy that isn’t

President Bush’s so-called speech of a lifetime laying out the next chapter in the demoralizing Iraqi saga was the gastronomic equivalent of a mashed-potato sandwich — serviceable but not appetizing.

Inexplicably standing before a bookcase of gauzily colored books (so we couldn’t be distracted by reading the titles?), he laid out a mea-culpa strategy that seems suspiciously like the status quo in drag.

Despite the “surge” of 21,500 more soldiers, we still won’t have as many troops in Iraq as were there for the Iraqi elections, but there will be more dangerous street fights, more deaths and more injuries. The payoff, the president hopes, would be more self-imposed responsibility from the Iraqi government in dealing with its intensifying civil war.

The play-it-safe president is now taking the gamble of a generation and putting the credibility of the entire country on the line as well as the lives of more American soldiers and diplomats.

Bush insists he has no trouble sleeping at night. But the fact that 83 percent of Americans, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group and many military leaders think he is wrong in refusing to cut our losses should keep him awake — at least until 11 p.m. instead of 9, his preferred bedtime.

The president has now admitted for the first time that his strategy for “winning” in Iraq, a term he has yet to explain, was wrong. But making Americans ever more visible in violence-prone Baghdad begs the questions of how what did not work before will now, suddenly, succeed. Also, Bush did not wave a stick at the weak Iraqi government or explain how it is to quell attacks on its citizens. If it could do that, wouldn’t it? And Bush set no timetable for reducing America’s combat role in Iraq.

No president wants to lose a war. This president is hoping that despite the November shellacking he took at the polls, the American people will accept his assurance that if they give him another chance, this time he will get it right. A president staring at the waning months of his term of office begins thinking of his legacy. Bush’s last-ditch plan, which he admits may not work and will be long and bloody, smacks of sheer desperation and stubbornness.

The bottom line is that there is no end in sight for America’s involvement in Iraq. The president says we don’t have an open-ended commitment, but his actions say otherwise. He will leave office in two years with U.S. soldiers still on patrol in Iraq, trying to arbitrate a no-win sectarian war without a clear mission or timetable for withdrawal.

Under our system of government, Congress is virtually powerless to stop Bush. He can send as many soldiers to Iraq as he can muster, which is now not enough. For all their bravado in criticizing Bush’s plan, Democrats will be wary of cutting funds the administration will insist are vital for the 132,000 troops there right now. Lawmakers can pass resolution after resolution and put some strings on tax dollars, but Bush will not leave Iraq willingly and Democrats are unable to force him to leave.

Bush may well be correct in assuming that given the alternative of pulling out of Iraq and leaving it and the entire region in chaos after the investment of the past four years, Americans will reluctantly follow his lead, spend at least $6 billion more this year for Iraq and let their sons and daughters continue to be sent into combat.

But they will come to hate him. Already it is hard to find even among his closest Republican friends any enthusiasm for the argument that this time his fuzzy plan for “democracy” in Iraq will succeed. The cynical view is that he psychologically cannot admit defeat and intends to leave the mess for his successor, knowing that Middle East stability is not on the horizon and that he will not change his mind and talk to Iran or Syria.

Bush thinks history will prove him right. How, he does not know. But his “speech of a lifetime” will go down among the vital speeches of history as one of the least factual, least inspiring and saddest ever given by an American president during a war. We left Vietnam long after we should have, and we’re going to do the same thing in Iraq.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)