Cindy Sheehan is right to be furious.
Camped out in Crawford, Texas, with several other mothers who lost sons in Iraq, Sheehan wants to meet President Bush. She says: "Our sons made the ultimate sacrifice, and we want answers."
I understand why Bush doesn't want to meet Sheehan. She wants him to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. But the president can't pull the troops out. He can't even make the substantial reductions that some of his top brass are predicting for early next year. If he does, he risks disaster for Iraqis while boosting the cause of jihadi terrorists.
And Bush can't afford to tell the mothers why he's caught in this trap.
If Bush met Sheehan, platitudes would not suffice. She would want to know why 140,000 U.S. soldiers are stuck in Iraq more than two years after the fall of Baghdad. She would demand answers that go beyond "Freedom is on the march."
Frank response wanted
The president is not willing to give those frank answers. If he were, here's what he would have to say (translated from Bush-ese):
"Mrs. Sheehan, our troops are mired in Iraq because of errors made by my team. The Pentagon made no plans for the postwar. We sent too few troops to secure Iraq after Saddam fell, despite prewar warnings by top U.S. generals. This created a power vacuum, into which rushed former Baathists who want to restore the old order, along with Iraqi criminals and Arab jihadis.
"I admit we failed to recognize the danger of this power vacuum. We disbanded Iraq's army, rather than let Iraqis revamp it. This required us to build new Iraqi security forces from scratch, a mammoth task that only got going in June 2004.
"Those new Iraqi forces are far, far from ready to fight alone.
"The real truth is we were wrong to think we could build a new Iraqi army like kids build with Legos. Building an army takes more than sending equipment and trainers. We forgot that we were dealing with human beings in a country very different from ours.
"One of our fine retired U.S. generals, Barry McCaffrey, who visited Iraq in May, summed it up just right: 'Here's the real shortcoming of the Iraqi forces: Do they collectively believe it's worth fighting and dying for Iraq?' Iraq is so split by religious and ethnic conflicts that many Iraqi soldiers don't know what they're fighting for.
"So we are caught in an awful bind, Mrs. Sheehan. Our military has concluded we can't defeat this insurgency by force. We don't have the manpower or the intelligence resources. We've badly overstretched our National Guard, along with our Army and Marines.
"But if we leave now, Iraq will disintegrate, maybe into full-scale civil war. The Kurds will take the north. The Shiite majority, who were our tacit allies, will take the south and most of the oil and ally with Iran. Worst of all, the Sunni chunk of the country will become a nightmare zone, where Arab terrorists train for attacks against our Arab allies, their oil wells and Israel.
"The Iraqi terrorist threat that didn't exist before we invaded will truly haunt the region. We will have created a monster.
"And, once more, we will have betrayed the Iraqis. Reagan let Saddam gas the Kurds; my father let Saddam slaughter the Shiites after urging them to rebel. Now I'll be responsible for taking out Iraq's institutions and leaving chaos behind.
"So when can our troops come home, you ask?
Dependent on Iraqis
"It's up to the Iraqis.
"No, no, I'm not trying to brush you off, Mrs. Sheehan.
"You see, the Iraqis are drafting a constitution that's supposed to be finished. If Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can only agree on a federal formula for sharing power, they can move forward to elections in December. If key Sunni leaders can be brought into the political process, that will undercut the insurgency, which is largely made up of disgruntled Sunnis.
"Then maybe we can draw down the troops.
"Yes, I know this is expecting a lot. Yes, I know Iraq is on the brink of civil war. I agree I overplayed the chance of democracy in a country with no experience of political give-and-take.
There's a limit to frankness, Mrs. Sheehan. I sympathize with your loss, but I really have to get back to my vacation ..."
X Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.