The new signs are, in a sense, positive. It appears that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Rice, et al., may have finally stopped conning themselves about their avalanche of misjudgments and self-deceptions that caused things to go so horribly wrong in Iraq.

Any day now, they may stop conning us.

The most hopeful sign appeared on Sunday in a Washington Post scoop following Bush’s meeting with his national security team at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The Post’s Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer reported that the administration is “significantly lowering expectations” of what can be achieved in Iraq.

Long-silent, anonymous “U. S. officials” were now saying Team Bush no longer expects the toppling of Saddam Hussein will result in a model democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a nation free from attacks by insurgents. Officials say they miscalculated the fervency of Iraq’s factional divisions, the power of the insurgents and the ability of outside militants to fuel them.

Bush officials thought rebuilding Iraq’s electricity and water would be no problem. “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground,” according to “a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion” quoted by the Post.

“We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we’re in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning,” the senior official is quoted as saying.

Now, hopefully, this gang that was so clueless in getting us into the mess in Iraq _ a policy failure with a price tag that includes the lost lives of 1,846 troops so far _ will apply a new cold, clear candor to getting us out. The solution must start with a new essential bottom line. And it cannot be as simple as promptly pulling out the troops, the demand of many unthinking critics who warn about a Vietnamization of the Iraq war.

Bush’s new bottom line must be to get U.S. troops out of Iraq in a way that avoids forever a worst-case scenario that was once inconceivable, was always unacceptable, but is now no longer unimaginable: the Afghanization of Iraq.

Which is to say that U.S. homeland security requires that Iraq cannot be allowed to disintegrate into an ungoverned non-nation composed of three factions (Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds) that break apart rather than coexist in compromised unity. That will only create the sort of vacuum that will become the new haven for global terrorists, just as Afghanistan was the haven for the al Qaeda terrorists, where they planned their attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Meanwhile, when it comes to basics in Iraq, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are not the only ones who cannot seem to get it together. Team Bush seems to be having similar problems of coherence and cohesion.

One day, the top U.S. general in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, says that if things go well, “substantial reductions” in troops can be made next spring or summer. Other military officials put “substantial” in numerical terms _ 20 percent or 25 percent of the 135,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

But then Bush declares: “No decision has been made yet” about troop-withdrawal possibilities. He adds: “I know there’s a lot of speculation and rumors about that.”

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld prods Iraqis to do more to stop infiltration of weapons and terrorists from Iran and Syria. But it was Bush officials who disbanded the Iraqi army that might have helped seal the borders. They’ve been trying to reconstitute an Iraqi army ever since.

The United States hasn’t had enough troops in Iraq to secure the outlying cities and towns, nor prevent infiltration of terrorists and bombs that are killing Iraqis and U.S. troops. That is why Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., have courageously urged increases in U.S. troop levels. It is the key to protecting troops now at risk and the key to preparing for a prudent pullout.

The unresolved question is whether Bush will have the fortitude to increase forces next year in the middle of the 2006 congressional elections _ bad politics, but the best way to protect the military and salvage a bit of their mission.

While an Afghanization of Iraq is unacceptable, Americans may wind up accepting an outcome that Bush had no clue 28 months ago might be a result of his zeal to topple Saddam: the Iranization of Iraq.

Which is to say that Iraq will likely end up as an Islamic republic, as some experts predict. Iraq could even evolve into a radicalized, fundamentalist Islamic republic, one with close ties to Iran. The tragic irony is that this will leave the U.S. homeland and Americans traveling around the world with a security threat far more perilous than any Saddam ever posed.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)