We can’t win but we must not lose

For months there was a loud clamor for President Bush to address the American people on the war in Iraq. He has now delivered four speeches. How did he do?

Bush’s resolve seems clear _ no withdrawal in the foreseeable future. His strategy for “complete victory” is less clear and vastly troubling.

In the thousands of words from Bush in the last few weeks, he repeatedly said that American troops are in Iraq to make certain it doesn’t become a “safe haven” for terrorists, to train Iraqi security forces to defend their own country and to help ensure that Iraq becomes a constitutional democracy.

He said Iraq must reform politically and economically. We’ve already spent $200 billion on Iraq, cutting U.S. social programs and going further into debt to do so. Bush plans to spend billions more in Iraq.

We have sent 160,000 under-equipped men and women, mostly in their 20s, to Iraq to fight insurgents who blow up innocent bystanders. We have asked these young warriors to deal with a culture and a language they don’t understand. We now expect them to make a crumbling war-torn nation the first constitutional democracy in the Arab world.

Bush’s plan sounds like foreign nation-building to me, which he promised in 2000 he would never do. He says 9/11 changed his thinking and insists Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

Bush said there has been a lot of progress in rebuilding Iraq now that military tactics are being changed and Iraqis have voted for a permanent four-year parliament. Reporters in Iraq are not convinced. They report continuing resentment about the “occupation” by foreign troops.

Put aside the dubious rationales for going to war. It is indisputable that the Bush administration misjudged the situation in Iraq from the start. Too few soldiers were sent. After the first euphoria at Saddam Hussein’s downfall, Iraqis wanted U.S. soldiers to leave. When they didn’t, insurgents were born. But the U.S. foolishly disbanded the Iraqi police force and army. Looting was not stopped. The country’s infrastructure should not have been pillaged. Rebuilding should have begun at once. Corruption was allowed to become rampant. Domestic critics of the strategy for Iraq unfairly were branded traitors.

Now that’s water under the bridge. Where does the Bush administration go from here to get to a stable Iraq?

1) It must not be grudging as it acknowledges that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was right in demanding that the United States make clear it will never condone torture or cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Vice President Cheney should apologize for lobbying behind the scenes for exemptions for the CIA to torture.

2) The rest of the world thinks we’re reneging on our democratic values because of the threat of terrorism. That perception must end.

3) In supporting the fledgling democracy in Iraq, the administration must make clear that the United States has no intention of staying in Iraq. Tactics should be changed so that U.S. soldiers have more protection and are not needlessly exposed to death and injury in pointless patrols.

4) The new Iraqi government must be pressured to improve its new constitution so that the rights of women and minorities are defended. The key challenge is to build a society in which Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis _ and men and women _ can live together. If the government fails, the country is doomed, and there is nothing the United States can do about it.

5) The Pentagon needs fresh blood. The current leadership has lost the confidence of the military. Its incompetence and misjudgments cost lives. The advice of U.S. generals in Iraq must be heeded, not ignored.

6) Iraqi soldiers have to be trained to lead, not just follow. They need proper weapons and armor and intelligence.

7) We must admit we are fighting three wars _ in Iraq, in Afghanistan and the war on terror. They are different and require different sacrifices from the American people. The U.S. military must not bear the entire burden. We are a country at war pretending not to be at war.

8) The president must set specific guideposts that will tell Americans _ and Iraqis _ how the process is going. Simply saying that we won’t leave until there is a functioning democracy is Iraq is too amorphous.

“Complete victory” is not possible. “Defeat” is not an option.

(Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)