Do American troops die in vain?

President Bush is standing at the podium taking questions from the press, and time and again as you look at his glazed gaze you think you are watching a tragic twist on the old deer-in-the-headlights refrain.

The president looks frozen in place and time, like he has been trapped in the glare of his own headlights.

These moments happen in between the flashes of determination and even defiance as he keeps insisting it would be “a disaster” and a “huge mistake” to pull America’s troops out of Iraq because it will embolden terrorists to strike us again and endanger our homeland. (What the leader-lite Democrats don’t understand is that he is probably right.)

AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima

AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima

But between those moments it is clear that he has no idea of what to say or do to make victory happen, or at least to assure non-defeat. It is then that a freeze-frame panic in his eyes makes you think that perhaps he has finally gotten a clue, deep inside, of the once-unspeakable, horrible outcome that awaits the troops he commands. His fear: That due to the exponentially mounting failures of his Iraq war decisions, more than 2,600 of the bravest American men and women who volunteered to serve their country have died in Iraq, possibly in vain.

It is the tragic truth from which the president’s legs, heart and mind cannot run. A bloody civil war has set in, even as he is still denying it to the cameras. Iraq has been allowed to spin so far out of control that there may be nothing that the mightiest military on earth can now do to save its own mission.

So we grieve for all the Americans who will have given their lives for a worthy cause that has been lost due to the massive misjudgments and arrogant tunnel vision of the president and the small inner circle who steered him wrong, including Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.

For, as the president flailed and filibustered Monday, the real truth was being told in the latest dispatches from Iraq. Sunni Arab insurgents attacked thousands of Shiite worshippers who flocked to Baghdad to pray on a Shiite Islamic holy day _ killing 20, wounding more than 300.

The daily U.S. military report called it a day of “relatively little violence.” The math says the military is right. After all, more 3,400 Iraqi civilians were killed in Iraq in July _ a record high that means more that 100 civilians are killed each day.

Thousands of U.S. troops were shifted from Mosul to Baghdad to try to halt events in a capital that was thought secured long ago. What does the commander-in-chief expect his troops to be doing each day if the Sunni vs. Shiite battling escalates? Patrol? Get caught in the middle? Hunker down? (As President Reagan had the marines do in Lebanon, with a tragic outcome.)

Does President Bush expect his troops can stop a civil war that is at once religious, ethnic, factional and historical _ the civil war he was warned about by elders who served his father and whose wisdom he ignored? We don’t know because he wasn’t asked. ABC’s Martha Raddatz tried to get there, noting the civilian deaths and asking if it was time for a new strategy. The commander-in-chief, however, confused strategy and tactics in his answer: “You know that the Pentagon is constantly adjusting tactics because they have the flexibility from the White House to do so.”

Raddatz interjected: “I’m talking about strategy.” Bush never blinked: “The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That’s the strategy. The tactics _ now, either you say, yes, it’s important that we stay there and get it done; or we leave. We’re not leaving so long as I’m the president. That would be a huge mistake.”

Strategy has seemed to be MIA ever since Saddam Hussein was toppled. Strategy for securing Iraq either never existed or it failed. Bush brushed aside recommendations for twice as many troops. Rummy disbanded Iraq’s army. Arsenal looters armed evildoers. Foreign terrorists infiltrated. And all as the president peacocked on an aircraft carrier festooned with “Mission Accomplished.”

Today, Bush rightly says we must not pull out and allow Iraq to collapse into dysfunction, leaving it to be a haven for terrorists to mobilize and plot new attacks against us.

But Americans must brace for this unspoken truth: We may no longer be able to prevent that painful outcome even if we stay _ as civil war expands all around our troops, giving catastrophic new meaning to harm’s way.

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