WASHINGTON -- President Bush's acknowledged frustration and his team's reported discouragement over the war in Iraq is testing the White House's resolve as never before.
As the terrorists continue to wreak destruction in Baghdad and throughout Iraq, and U.S. casualties continue to rise, it has become the focus of the midterm elections in many states, dominating the national dialogue and, of course, last week's presidential news conference.
Bush showed no inkling that Iraq's increased sectarian violence and the intermittent raids on Iraqi, U.S. and coalition forces have weakened his resolve to stand by the infant democracy and its struggle to survive. But, for the first time, he admitted that "sometimes I'm frustrated" and acknowledged the war was "straining the psyche of the country."
While he continued to defend the conflict, tying it to the larger war on global terrorism and vowing to stand by the Iraqis until "the job is done," Washington Post reporter Peter Baker noted that this time Bush did not use the word he has used many times before to defend his policies there: Progress.
That frustration is testing the confidence in Bush's high command, too. "While still committed to the venture, officials have privately told friends and associates outside government that they have grown discouraged in recent months," Baker reported last week.
Exuding confidence in the mission is critical to its success and to public support -- in this war as in any other.
Biographer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that in the planning and conduct of the war in Europe, supreme allied commander Dwight Eisenhower did not want anyone on his staff who harbored or expressed any doubts or pessimism about the success of their mission to liberate Europe.
Of course, World War II was an entirely different war than the shadowy, hit-and-run guerrilla war being fought In Iraq where unseen terrorists and disguised suicide bombers are fighting a war of attrition that they believe will wear us down to the point where we leave.
But Bush said last week that we will not leave during his presidency, at least not until the Iraqi defense forces are capable of fighting the Al Qaeda terrorists on their own. The U.S.-trained Iraqi military has taken command of a number of brigades, and will take over more units in the months to come, but they are not able to defend their country without our assistance.
It seems clear by now that a preliminary drawdown of U.S. troops later this year is not going to happen, setting up a scenario in the fall where the terrorists will attempt to kill as many U.S. soldiers and Iraqis as they can to influence the election's outcome.
Their purpose is not to take over territory or control strategic cities or facilities, but to sow death and chaos and foment a Sunni-Shiite civil war that would turn Iraq into an unwinnable military nightmare.
Perhaps the most discouraging remark yet by any U.S. military leader in Iraq came earlier this month when Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee about the rising level of violence in Baghdad. During his testimony, Abizaid expressed the fear of a full-scale civil war, though he said we were not at that point so far.
Meanwhile, there have been encouraging glimpses of military progress, even in some Baghdad neighborhoods. "We are cautiously optimistic and encouraged by all the indicators that we are seeing," Army Gen. William Caldwell said at a news briefing in Baghdad last week to deliver an assessment of the military's raids on insurgents in key areas of the city. "What we're seeing in these areas is life coming back to some normalcy. We see women and children walking freely," he said. There were sections of the city where the violence rate had fallen from 30 incidents per day to none. "There in fact has been a downturn in the level of violence in Baghdad over the last three weeks," Caldwell said. I continue to believe that we cannot just give up on Iraq as Bush's war critics have proposed.
Clearly, we will have to change tactics, and there is a renewed effort in Bush's high command to seek out new and innovative ways to suppress the violence there and to initiate new economic ventures, too. As of now, 294,000 Iraqi troops have been trained, but that's short of the 325,000 that are needed -- at a minimum. And there is still a huge officer leadership gap in the Iraqi ranks.
But to give up now at a time when the terrorist offensive appears more emboldened than ever throughout the Middle East and the world (as we saw in the airline bombing plot in Great Britain), would be, as Bush said at his news conference, "a disaster."
This is a time for renewed confidence in a war that is part and parcel of the global war on terrorism. If we do not strike back at them there, we will have to eventually face them over here.