President needs to be clear about U.S. presence in Iraq

Faced with declining public support for the war in Iraq, insurgencies in Baghdad and other cities that show no signs of being contained, and demands from members of Congress from his own party for a date certain for withdrawal of American troops, President Bush reiterated Monday that the United States would not cut and run. Given the human and monetary toll the war in Iraq has taken on America, Bush has no choice but to see this ill-advised experiment in nation building through.
However, the time has come for him to explain to the American people what he means today when he says "We will complete this mission." After all, Bush declared "mission accomplished" in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Since the invasion, which resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the mission has grown increasingly vague. Remember, the stated goal of the coalition's military attack was the ouster of Saddam, who was accused of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and of having ties to the Al-Qaida terrorist network. Al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, provided the terrorists in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America's mainland that claimed 3,000 lives.
But with those reasons for going to war with Iraq now discredited, there are several questions the president must answer: Is the goal today simply to train enough Iraqi soldiers to ensure the security of the country, or is it to install a democratically elected government allied to the U.S.? Is it to rid Iraq of all foreign infiltrators who want to establish a launching pad for terrorist activities aimed at the United States, or is it to make Iraq the starting point of a U.S.-led campaign to spread democracy throughout the Arab world? And, how does Iraq figure in the war on global terrorism?
"I think about Iraq every day, every single day, because I understand we have kids in harm's way," Bush told reporters in the White House. "We will complete the mission and the world will be better off for it."
Rising toll
But with 1,722 American soldiers killed -- 1,354 in combat -- and 12,896 Americans officially listed as wounded, and with Iraqi officials saying that 12,000 Iraqis have died in the past 18 months as a result of the unrelenting attacks by insurgents, the American people deserve to hear more from the president than his heartfelt thoughts.
Is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading Republican on Capitol Hill, correct in his assessment that it would probably take "at least a couple more years" before enough Iraqis are capable of securing their country? We believe McCain is right, but only Bush can respond with any authority to that question. And he must.
The uncertainty over the Iraqi excursion has been fueled by the so-called Downing Street memos written by British government officials. The memos suggest a mindset on the part of President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that could be summed up thus: We need to find a reason for invading Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
That is why there has never been an exit strategy or even a public discussion of what would happen in post-Saddam Iraq. If the Downing Street memos are to be believed -- there has been no official repudiation of them -- Bush and Blair first made the decision to invade and then began to look for a justification, giving no thought to the aftermath. What is occurring in Iraq today certainly bears that out.
It is time the president leveled with the American people.

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