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There's no there there

October 12, 2006

AT HIS NEWS CONFERENCE Wednesday, President Bush expressed not once but three times his view that if the U.S. does not defeat the terrorists "over there" in Iraq, it will have to fight them here in the United States. This crude formulation is tiresome and insulting to Americans' intelligence.

"I firmly believe that the American people understand that this is different from other wars because in this war, if we were to leave early, before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here," Bush said. This conjures up improbable images of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents stuffing bomb-making manuals into their backpacks and booking flights to LAX while U.S. troops march out of Baghdad.

There are good reasons not to withdraw from Iraq hastily. But Bush's assertion about a good offense being the best defense undermines his own credibility.

With the "unity" government in Iraq dangerously factionalized, the risk that the country may soon be engulfed in an all-out battle among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish elements remains high -- even if U.S. troops stay. If they depart quickly, leaving behind an unstable government unable to keep the peace even in Baghdad, a savage sectarian war over territory, oil and power could result. Iran, Turkey and other neighbors could become embroiled in a conflagration atop the world's fourth-largest oil reserves.

The day the U.S. announces its withdrawal, it will lose much of its leverage to try to bind Iraq's neighbors into a security arrangement that would help hedge against that outcome. Washington will need all its damaged diplomatic wiles to extricate itself in such a way that the bloodshed and instability aren't exacerbated. It is a pity, in this regard, that former Secretary of State and Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III has declared that he will not make public the recommendations of his Iraq Study Group until after the November election.

Bush is right to say that Al Qaeda would crow at an American "defeat" in Iraq. Indeed, anti-American elements around the world would surely take great satisfaction in any U.S. humiliation. But his equation of withdrawal with defeat, of leaving the Iraqis to manage their own affairs with handing a victory to terrorists, is simplistic in the extreme. Sooner or later, the U.S. military will leave Iraq. A sober and thoughtful national debate could illuminate how best to accomplish that.

The deliberate repetition of a shameless canard just before an election does not contribute to this thoughtful debate. Indeed, Bush's formulation could lead to a false sense of complacency. Fighting the terrorists "over there" does not necessarily make us safer "over here." This is not to say that there is no relation at all between Iraq's fate and the threat of terrorism to the U.S. But the relationship is not as simplistic as the president describes it. Pretending these two issues are part of the same problem trivializes them both.

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