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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Misread message on Iraq criticism

WASHINGTON

AS FAR AS I can tell, the press essentially ignored Senator Joe Biden's detailed plea last week for a ''new compact" between President Bush and Congress on the unstable, dangerous situation in Iraq.

There was spotty coverage of a few of his specific suggestions for a more effective struggle against the insurgency, which came from his role as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after his fourth post-invasion journey and not as a tentative candidate for president in 2008.

However, Biden's comments about the Bush administration's credibility gap on Iraq were all my racket needed to stoke the fires of America's unproductive shouting match. The real problem in the media is not bias, it is a preference for the Jimmy Cagneys in our midst. We hate 10-point programs and are suckers every time for any politician who wants to say ''You dirty rat" as a substitute for grownup discussion of a serious matter.

Even Karl Rove had some interesting things to say to the Conservative Party in New York the other evening. However, the fact that he politicized 9/11 was all we needed to create another cause celebre. Before President Bush addresses the nation this week he might consider trying to march to a different drummer, but I'm not holding my breath.

Fortunately, the White House did not have to rely on the press to understand what Biden was saying. Its top security officials sought him out about his latest journey, and Biden talked to them before he spoke in public.

In case there is doubt, he made one thing clear: ''George Bush is our president, we have one president at a time; he is the president, and no one is running against George Bush. There is a desire here, the intent of my remarks and my meetings at the request of the president with his national security adviser [Steve Hadley], to figure out how to get it right in Iraq."

Without hyperbole, Biden's summary of the facts on the ground is that, as regional military boss General John Abizaid told Congress last week, the insurgency is about what it was six months and a year ago. Attacks have returned to their murderous level of 60-70 per week, and the use of car bombs has dramatically escalated to an average of 30 per week. Good news, the fact that some in the Sunni minority are switching from violence to politics, is countered by the bad news that ''a whole lot of them are not." The US military, Biden said, is doing everything it can but the obvious need for more soldiers prevents more progress, and the tortoise-pace of Iraqi military training means that force levels are only going to improve slowly. Meanwhile, the Iraqi economy is still broke, and two-thirds of the reconstruction money appropriated more than a year ago remains unspent, especially on labor-intensive projects. Politically, Iraq continues to waver between chaos and a potentially viable federation.

Biden's recommendations after his meetings in Iraq are neither naive nor trivial. He believes that if Bush presses effectively, NATO can use existing plans to field a small force of up to 5,000 troops to guard Iraq's porous border, especially with Syria.

He also believes that existing offers from other countries, if the Iraqi government requests help, can significantly expand the training of indigenous forces. That includes a long-standing French offer to train 1,500 paramilitary police in France and hundreds more in Egypt. It also includes a willingness expressed by the German government and a specific offer to train more officers in Jordan.

On reconstruction, Biden proceeds from several disturbing facts on the ground. There was once a US goal of 6,000 megawatts of electricity to be produced in Iraq by last summer. Current production is barely 4,000 megawatts and the current goal is 5,500 by September. And Iraqi oil production, at 2.25 million barrels daily, is where it was at the beginning of 2004, 750,000 barrels short of the goal.

Realistic goals and timetables are imperative, Biden urged, along with a rash of labor-intensive projects that can be started quickly. ''Everybody knows it's a tribal society," he said. ''As my good friend Dick Lugar said some time ago, what's needed is a little walking around money."

The country's political leaders have got to focus like lasers on the future; the present is that perilous. Hidden in all the polling results and the unwise, hot rhetoric is a fervent desire that Iraq succeed. As Bush prepares to address the nation, the message ought to be to suspend the shouting match over the past and concentrate on what may be a last chance to get this right.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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