Are we winning yet?
As the body count mounts in Iraq, and midterm elections loom, that's the question of the moment.
Unfortunately, as Americans have come to expect, the answer depends on what the definition of "winning" is.
President Bush tried to clarify that definition Wednesday at a morning news conference -- and later in the day meeting with a small group of journalists in the Oval Office.
This is a little tricky, so pay attention.
First, "winning" is closely tied to "staying the course," another term seeking definition the past few days. As of this writing, "staying the course" means "winning," which means "not losing," but you knew that.
And what does "not losing" mean? According to Bush, it means not leaving. Which no one wants to hear, but there it is.
Leaving Iraq -- or "cutting and running," as the sound bite goes -- would be tantamount to surrender, Bush implied.
"The only defeat is leaving," he also said.
And finally, "If we leave, they will follow us here."
Aha, that's more like it.
Americans pilloried by platitudes and bludgeoned by body counts could use a little if/then perspective. "If we leave, they will follow" is pretty clear-cut.
But what happens if we stay? More Americans will die, surely. More sectarian violence will occur. The end, it seems, is nowhere in sight, but that doesn't mean we're losing.
I told you it was tricky.
The new plan is for the U.S. and Iraqi governments to create mutually agreeable benchmarks -- but no timetables. Meanwhile, Bush is urging Americans to see the big picture.
Part of the problem, he says, is that our enemy gets to define victory. Because Bush has made a conscious decision not to announce the enemy's body count, Americans hear only that 3,000 U.S. military personnel have died, or that 60,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.
It's easy to infer from such news that we are losing. Big time. And as Bush put it, nobody wants to hear that we opened four more schools this week.
Although he was candid about his frustrations, Bush's mood in the Oval Office could be described as conditionally optimistic. He asked that we not characterize him as "trying to always put lipstick on the pig." He's realistic about the obstacles and the stakes.
At times the president seemed restless. One got the feeling he wanted to jump up on a chair with a bullhorn and shout: "What is wrong with you people?!"
In a quieter voice, he said: "I am in disbelief that people don't take these people (extremists) seriously." And, "Much of the thinking and decision-making that I do now is based upon my belief that we're in this grand ideological struggle. ... We need to be on the offense all the time."
That our continued liberty ultimately depends on liberty elsewhere seems an inarguable, if inconvenient, truth. The extremists who seek to subsume or destroy the West are relentless, patient and brutal.
If we leave Iraq too soon, they, indeed, will feel emboldened and see America as weak-willed. Our position may not be hopeless, but nor is it promising.
Whatever Bush's big picture perspective may suggest to him, discouraged Americans -- including most in the Democratic Party -- insist that Iraq was an unnecessary war of choice. There were, after all, no weapons of mass destruction.
Bush finally acknowledges the absence of WMD as "not encouraging," but insists that he made the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein. (It is worth recalling that even the possibility of Saddam's having WMD was unacceptable at the time.)
He also insists that Iraq is a central part of the war on terror, and that what happens there will affect what happens elsewhere, including Iran and Syria.
Bush talked of his efforts to build an alliance of reasonable people to clash with the radicals, though not necessarily militarily. He said he hopes to convince Syria to join the U.S. in the struggle, adding that military action should be the last option.
"I want people whose loved ones will be in harm's way ... to know that we tried everything else first."
At this point, the only real question, said Bush, is whether we can help the Iraqi government succeed. "Not only can we help them, we must help them," he said.
Which means not leaving. Which means not losing. Which means winning, maybe, as currently defined.