Editorial: Americans seek clarity of mission

  • Updated: September 12, 2007 - 12:30 AM

Are we still buying time for the Iraqis? And time for what?

As one might expect, the testimony this week of Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker focused on specifics of their fields of expertise, not on an all-encompassing strategy for U.S. achievement of Iraqi independence and unity. They're involved with the trees, if you will, not the forest. That was the week's Chapter 1.

Chapter 2 will focus on the big question: What does President Bush make of all the accumulated reports? Is there still a positive goal for one united Iraq, or was Sen. Barack Obama right when he said yesterday that it seemed we have only "bad options and worse options" to discuss? When Bush speaks to the nation on television this week, he must answer that broad question.

Perhaps Americans yearn for something they're not likely to get, because both parties in Washington have one eye on 2008 election calculations. The public needs a truly above-the-fray assessment -- not only of how the military surge is going, but of whether and how the United States can improve Iraq's ability to function.

Both a Government Accountability Office report and a National Intelligence Estimate underscored that the Iraqi government has failed to meet most of its benchmarks for progress, let alone achieve reconciliation. Indeed, as one analyst put it, "In most areas, for most Iraqis, the central government is either irrelevant or invisible."

The surge, remember, was intended to create breathing room, or "space," for the Iraqi government to get its act together on several fronts -- and ultimately to achieve reconciliation. This week U.S. leaders seem to be talking, instead, about much lesser goals: essentially doing specific things that will help make the awful Iraq security situation less awful.

Indeed, one has the sense of a military-driven decisionmaking process toward security goals that might allow the United States to reduce troop levels in a matter of months -- but only to the point that they were at before the surge.

For the sake of this week's argument, most Americans probably would be willing to set aside the issues of why the United States went into Iraq in the first place. But they need the president to answer the "forest" questions:

• What is left of the oft-stated desire to instill democracy in Iraq and to ensure the emergence of an independent, unified nation? Have we given up on that as the Sunnis and Shiites have claimed turf, taken control of it and purged others?

• What levers do we have to press the Iraqi government to work the benchmarks they've missed, and are those levers being used to maximum effectiveness?

• Is there any realistic hope for the years-old goal of training the Iraqi police and army to be effective on their own?

• If it will take nearly another year to get back to presurge troop levels, what is envisioned to happen that would enable going lower than that? And when might that occur?

Ultimately, Americans deserve -- not just from Petraeus and Crocker, but from President Bush himself -- a clear answer to the key question, asked bluntly yesterday by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.: "Are we going to continue to invest blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what?"

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