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Getting real about Iraq

SPEAKING TO the UN General Assembly yesterday, President Bush offered a paean to human dignity and the advance of freedom that was directed less to the heads of government and diplomats in the audience than to American voters. It was a speech truffled with his campaign themes. He came out firmly for freedom and democracy and against tyranny, corruption, and the murder of children by ruthless terrorists.

The president made no meaningful effort to stitch together again the international consensus his father had fostered in the aftermath of communism's collapse -- a consensus he has scorned from the moment he came to office. On Iraq, Bush merely reiterated the same justifications he had given in the past for toppling Saddam Hussein without authorization from the UN Security Council.

In the heat of a presidential campaign, Bush could hardly be expected to acknowledge that he failed to create international unity behind the demand that Saddam comply with 17 UN resolutions the Iraqi despot had defied. A day after being attacked by John Kerry for "colossal failures of judgment," Bush would have done himself grave political harm if he had apologized to his UN audience for going to war without forging the international coalition former secretary of state James Baker had recommended in a sage New York Times op-ed article in August 2002.

The telling truth of the address Kerry gave Monday at New York University is that Bush does owe Americans, if not an apology, then at least an honest accounting of the blunders his administration has made in Iraq. Kerry expressed a consensus shared by prominent Republicans as well as independent specialists when he told his NYU audience: "In Iraq, this administration has consistently overpromised and underperformed. This policy has been plagued by a lack of planning, an absence of candor, arrogance, and outright incompetence."

If anything, Kerry could have been more specific in highlighting the errors that have led to the current chaos in Iraq. These include a failure to heed US Army generals on the force levels needed for postwar stability; a disastrous decision to dissolve the Iraqi army; the disregarding of Iraqi pleas to transfer political authority swiftly to Iraqis; and a failure to begin creating jobs and building houses immediately.

If Bush had wanted to tell the truth at the UN, he would have acknowledged that his blinkered statecraft, as Kerry put it, has "divided our friends and united our enemies." Kerry has correctly criticized the "stubborn incompetence" that has weakened the United States and led it to the verge of calamity in Iraq. But Kerry needs to do a better job of explaining what he would do -- beyond what Bush is already trying to do -- to rescue Iraq and America from the calamity Bush has been creating. 

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