HERE'S THE question President Bush's Tuesday address to the nation raises.
Having framed the Iraq war in a dishonest way, can the president really expect the informed public to believe his presentation about how the stabilization effort is going?
Certainly Bush's speech started on a highly deceptive note, portraying the grinding conflict in Iraq as a necessary response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
More than a year ago, the 9/11 Commission reported that there was no ''collaborative relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Still, implications that Iraq was complicit in Sept. 11 and claims that Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda worked well for the Republicans in the 2004 campaign. They used the former tactic to deftly duplicitous effect at their national convention. In other venues, both Bush and Vice President Cheney insisted there was a relationship -- ''a whole series of contacts, high-level contacts," Cheney claimed -- between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime.
Now the president is employing a similar approach even as he asks, in essence, that the nation trust his judgment and stay the course in Iraq.
But the time for trust has long expired. The nation would be far better served if Congress resolved to make this administration more accountable.
Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently returned from his fifth trip to Iraq. The situation he found differs in crucial particulars from that which the president described, the senator told me in an interview.
In his speech, Bush told the nation that ''today Iraq has more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions."
But here's what Biden says General David Petraeus, the man in charge of training Iraqi forces, told him about the 107 Iraqi army battalions: ''He said three -- T-H-R-E-E -- are fully trained and capable of executing missions on their own without American help. You are talking 500 to 800 troops in each of the units. So if you add it all up, at most they have 2,400" troops ready to function independently.
Although Bush downplayed the problems with Iraq's fledgling forces, saying ''some are capable of taking on the terrorists and insurgents by themselves" and that ''a large number can plan and execute antiterrorist operations with coalition support," as Biden points out, it's the ability of those soldiers to operate independently that matters, because only then can US troops leave.
Further, the Delaware Democrat said that the United States and Iraq haven't taken France, Egypt, and Jordan up on their offers to train police or military officers -- offers Biden has heard in person from French President Jacques Chirac and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. A high administration official confided to him that objections from the Department of Defense have kept that from happening, Biden says.
From his own conversations with NATO officials, Biden says NATO could be persuaded to send 3,000 to 5,000 troops to help secure Iraq's porous borders. But the administration has not pushed for that, he says.
On Tuesday, Bush said that 40 countries and three international organizations have pledged $34 billion to help Iraq's reconstruction. Actually, says Biden, $21 billion of that is from US taxpayers. Only $13 billion comes from other countries or agencies -- and of that, only about $3 billion has been delivered. What's more, he says, of the $18.4 billion Congress appropriated in the fall of 2003 in additional reconstruction dollars, only $6 billion has actually been spent.
Biden says it's time for Congress to get far more aggressive.
''We have been irresponsible," he said. ''There have been virtually no oversight hearings about what is going on in Iraq." He proposes monthly oversight hearings to hold the administration responsible for concrete progress toward clearly outlined goals.
That's hardly all Congress should do. The Downing Street memo has increased suspicions that the Bush administration purposely misused intelligence to make the case for war. Yet despite a 2004 commitment to examine the administration's use of intelligence once the election was over, Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has since said that he no longer considers that investigation a priority.
Last week, 10 US senators wrote Roberts, a Kansas Republican, to urge that the investigation go forward with maximum speed. Of course it should.
But then, a lawmaker truly concerned about truth and accountability shouldn't need any prompting to pursue the Senate's crucial oversight responsibilities.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.