Donald Lambro

President Bush has struck a new but cautious balance between impatience and perseverance in the war in Iraq that threatens his party's prospects on Nov. 7.

His tweaked war posture at last week's news conference was not exactly back-peddling from "stay the course," a status-quo phrase neither he nor the White House uses these days. Instead, he has sent signals to Iraqi leaders that his and America's patience in the long war "is not unlimited."

In plain street language: It's time for you Iraqis to kick butt.

In remarks that reflected growing public disapproval of the war, and to some degree Democratic demands that he exert more pressure on Iraqi leaders, Bush said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either."

The election is little more than a week away and polls show voters have turned increasingly pessimistic about the war, including 36 percent of the Republicans (in The Washington Post poll) and 60 percent of independents who say they will vote for Democratic candidates by about 2-to-1.

To some extent, Bush's remarks on the war was a calculated message to his party's most embattled House and Senate candidates that they, too, could express increasing impatience with the course of the war and the Iraqis' handling of the insurgency if it would help them blunt the Democrats' campaign offensive. Many were already doing so.

Bush's nuanced signals came one day after Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, outlined a step-by-step timeline under which the Iraqis would formally take over war operations in the country's provinces in about 12-to-18 months.

There would continue to be "some level of (military) support" from the U.S., but presumably it would open the way for U.S. troop withdrawals as the Iraqi army grew in size and capabilities.

The administration's tougher rhetoric came in one of the bloodiest months of the war when nearly 100 U.S. troops have been killed by an intensified insurgency that seeks to influence the outcome of the elections by killing as many Americans as they can.

And in that respect, the terrorists have been successful. The killings have solidified the war as the No. 1 election issue, giving the Democrats increased ammunition to fire at their GOP opponents and clearly throwing Republicans and the administration on the defensive.

But the White House's recent initiatives, together with Bush's admission of impatience with the Iraqis, may change the political debate, if only on the margins. It assures voters of the administration's flexibility as it threads its way through the war's thorny complexities, moving toward a strategy that will more quickly shift the war's burden onto Iraqi shoulders and thus to a partial U.S. exit.

This is a war that will likely last a long time (the IRA conflict in Northern Ireland lasted 37 years), but the brunt of it must be born by the Iraqis, with U.S. troop training, air power support when needed and an inexhaustible supply of weaponry and logistical support to defeat the terrorists in their midst.

Many Americans want us out of Iraq now, but most want us to leave in a way that gives the Iraqis a chance to defend themselves and their young democracy.

They showed us that's what they want when, despite terrorist threats of death, they turned out by the millions to approve a Constitution and elect a representative government.

More than 2,800 brave Americans -- and tens of thousands of Iraqis -- gave their lives to this cause and this war against terrorism. Our impatience is understandable. But leaving before the Iraqis can fight this war on their own so they can remain a free and sovereign nation allied with the United States, would mean that our best and brightest have died in vain.

The terrorists will not go away if we leave now. They will resume their deadly plots on the U.S. once again. This is no time to sound the call for retreat.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.