In the end, this is still Bush’s war

It is a healthy development that President Bush abandoned the format of carefully screened audiences and scripted “conversations” and defended his Iraq policy in open forums, taking questions from all comers Monday in Cleveland and Tuesday in a press conference at the White House.

It is a mystery why Bush doesn’t do it more often because, all canards about his intellect and syntax aside, he does it very well. And, moreover, he has to do it to stop the accelerating erosion in public support for the war.

As a consequence of that, the president seems to have toned down the hubris and overconfidence that characterized his administration’s pronouncements on Iraq, going back to his own declaration of “victory” and “mission accomplished” three years ago. Clearly, this new restraint hasn’t spread to everyone. Just Sunday, Vice President Cheney called his assertion of last year that the insurgency was in its last throes “basically accurate.”

Perhaps tellingly, the president in his press conference scaled back his assessment of the prospects of success from “I am confident” to “I’m optimistic,” leavened by “I’m also realistic.”

The president does seem genuinely optimistic that his strategy of bolstering an elected unity government, protected by more and better-trained Iraqi police and troops, with American forces increasingly in reserve, will ultimately prevail, if not in his administration then during the next.

But this is Bush’s war, and as the midpoint of his second term draws near, the war is more and more the be-all and end-all of his presidency. He listed his domestic accomplishments over the past year — renewal of the Patriot Act, two Supreme Court justices confirmed, “some tort reform,” an energy bill much watered down — but in truth these are altogether modest, considering how high he was riding on Inauguration Day 2005.

The president made some threatening noises toward Iran, reiterating that “we will use military might to protect our ally Israel.” If Israel is attacked, yes, but the price of unfinished business in Iraq is that the American public and Congress won’t follow him into another pre-emptive war of choice.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)