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What Bush didn't say about the war

HAD PRESIDENT Bush chosen to be candid and honest yesterday at the Naval Academy, he could have added a simple sentence to his oration on how marvelously things are going in Iraq.

That sentence would read: Representative Jack Murtha is correct. In fact, if anything, the pro-military Democrat from Pennsylvania probably understated his case that the United States can and should withdraw its troops from Iraq over the next six months, leaving only a rapid response force in one of the Persian Gulf emirates.

Had Bush chosen candor and honesty, he could have said flat-out that Hillary Clinton was correct this week in calling for a plan to withdraw troops next year in the aftermath of December's parliamentary elections.

The president didn't do either because he was not being candid or honest about the situation in a place where he insists on an open-ended military commitment.

It was Senator Clinton, in an e-mail to New York supporters this week, who framed the issue in exactly the manner that caught Bush in his latest deception. ''Given years of assurances that the war was nearly over and that the insurgents were in their 'last throes,' this administration was either not being honest with the American people or did not know what was going on in Iraq," she wrote.

Looking ahead, Clinton offered her own version of Murtha's recommendation that differs from his in its absence of a timetable and its intentional vagueness about whether a residual force should be inside or just beyond Iraq's border.

Her key words: ''I believe we are at a critical point with the Dec. 15 elections that should, if successful, allow us to start bringing home our troops in the coming year, while leaving behind a small contingent in safer areas with greater intelligence and quick strike capabilities."

The question Bush was unable to confront, much less answer yesterday, is what requires the presence of 160,000 US troops in Iraq.

He did, however, unconsciously provide fodder for his critics. That was especially so on the subject of training Iraqis to defend themselves from an insurgency that while obscenely violent is also comparatively small and unable to occupy, much less rule, any significant hunk of territory even in Sunni Arab communities.

As even Bush acknowledged, this is hardly a huge or complex enemy. It has terrorists, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and some mortars. This is not high-tech warfare, rather the reverse. Against this insurgency, even he said, there is a large and growing number of trained soldiers. It takes at most two months or so to train a battalion of Iraqi soldiers and 3,000 or so police officers. Obviously, the problem is not numbers. Over a year, even starting from scratch, which the Iraqis are not doing, this produces a force that dwarfs the insurgents' numbers.

Clearly, the real problem involves will and strategy. What Bush didn't talk about was the burden now on American forces that Iraqi leaders are unwilling, but not unable to shoulder. That is why so many experts believe that lighting a fire under the Iraqis, for example with a withdrawal timetable, would provide motivation to defend themselves and start building a country.

Instead, Shi'ite and Kurdish political forces seem content to let Americans bear a burden that should be theirs. Bush is not entitled to support for an open-ended war that puts Americans in a mercenary role.

Another topic Bush chooses not to address is the role of militias in Iraq's evolving society. As experts here and military people over there keep reporting, both the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south use militias for ''security." Increasingly, Americans are hearing reports that they have units that go around and kill opponents in large numbers. In the shadows, there is something very close to a low-grade civil war going on in Iraq. The basic security of the Kurdish and Shi'ite areas, moreover, is not in serious doubt. What is in doubt is their will to use force to suppress insurgents in the Sunni communities and in Baghdad, and the ability of Sunnis who want a role in a new Iraq to organize themselves.

Instead of staying a course to nowhere, the opportunity for Americans now is to recognize that in a few weeks Iraq will have an elected government and tens of thousands of armed adults who need to take the next step.

The final topic Bush did not address yesterday is the impact of the American occupation in both fomenting and sustaining the insurgency and in attracting foreign terrorists. It is a topic that many of his own people -- including Donald Rumseld -- occasionally face; it is also a topic that had much to do with Murtha's gutsy move.

For their sake, as well as ours, we need to begin standing down so Iraqis can stand up. Bush has that exactly backwards.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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