Bush and candidates need a reality check

The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq prompted speeches from President Bush and the Democratic candidates who hope to inherit the White House next year. Sadly, what they had in common was their failure to grapple with hard realities — beginning with the elusiveness of any clear or quick path toward Bush's promise of "victory," or that of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to "end this war."

Bush's address dwelt on the success of the initial military campaign of March 2003, then skipped ahead to the "surge" of the last year. The president deservedly claimed credit for launching the latter campaign, which has drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq. But he went on to claim that, more than turning "the situation in Iraq around," the surge "has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror." That sounded at best premature, given the tenuousness of the security gains and the slowness of Iraqi leaders to strike political deals that could truly stabilize the country.

The president at least recognizes, from "hard experience," how quickly progress in Iraq can unravel. This week he pledged not to order troop withdrawals beyond the five brigades due to return home by this summer unless "conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders" warrant it.

That means that if Obama or Clinton become president, he or she will be the commander in chief of at least 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet their speeches suggest an understanding of the conflict and the stakes for the United States that is as detached from reality as they accuse Bush of being when he decided on the invasion.

Barely acknowledging the reduction in violence, the Democratic candidates insist that U.S. troops are, as Clinton put it, "babysitting a civil war." In fact, the surge forestalled an incipient civil war, and U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq don't hesitate to say that if American forces withdrew now, sectarian conflict would probably explode in its full fury, causing bloodshed on a far greater scale than ever before and posing grave threats to U.S. security.

With equal implausibility, the Democratic candidates say they would leave limited U.S. forces behind to prevent al-Qaida from establishing bases. They assume that an Iraqi government that had just been abandoned by the United States would consent to the continued presence of American forces on its territory. In all, Clinton and Obama speak as if they have no understanding of Iraqi leaders, whom they propose to treat as willing puppets.

If there was a glimmer of sense in Obama's speech, it lay in his acknowledgment that "we will have to make tactical adjustments, listening to our commanders on the ground, to ensure that our interests in a stable Iraq are met and to make sure our troops are secure." Clinton conceded that "the critical question is how we can end this war responsibly" and added "it won't be easy."

In fact it will be terribly hard — and it can't be done responsibly in the way or on the timeline the two Democrats are proposing. We can only hope that, behind their wildly unrealistic campaign rhetoric, the candidates understand that reality.

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