Most presidents would be doing two things right now: adjusting the rhetoric (so that expectations meet reality) and changing the policy (so that the reality isn't disastrous for U.S. interests).
One problem with Bush, judging from his Aug. 28 speech at an American Legion convention, is that he doesn't seem to grasp the reality. He told the Legionnaires:
The challenge in Iraq comes down to this: Either the forces of extremism succeed, or the forces of freedom succeed. Either our enemies advance their interests in Iraq, or we advance our interests. The most important and immediate way to counter the ambitions of al-Qaida and Iran and other forces of instability and terror is to win the fight in Iraq.
Even by his standards, this is a startlingly misguided passage. Few serious analysts would disagree that the best we can hope for in Iraq is a moderately authoritarian government that's not too terribly sectarian and not too closely aligned with Iran—that is to say, a regime that is neither extremist nor, in any Western sense, free. It would be a huge relief if "our enemies" don't see their interests advanced very far in Iraq, but few at this point anticipate U.S. interests making much headway either. It is unlikely that we or the Iraqi leaders will be able to ward off ambitions of al-Qaida and Iran and "other forces of instability and terror." At least one of those groups will come out fairly well; the key task now is to make sure that the most dangerous of them do not. And it is still unclear, after all this time, how Bush defines "win."
At one point in his speech, he came close to defining the term, but by that measure, we're not doing well. The "central objective" of his strategy in Iraq, he said, is "to aid the rise of an Iraqi government that can protect its people, deliver basic services, and be an ally in this war on terror."
The Iraqi people do not feel more protected (or, to the extent they do in certain areas, for instance in Anbar province, the relief has nothing to do with the Iraqi government). Basic services—clean water and electricity—are more lacking than they were a few months ago. And, even if the Baghdad regime gets its act together, it is unlikely to get confrontational with, say, Iran or Hezbollah.
It has always been doubtful that the U.S. military could pull off all these objectives. With the inevitable drawdown of troops, the chances are dimmer still. It's long past time to stop declaring lofty, unachievable goals and to focus on what's feasible.
Two military goals are feasible and worthwhile: defeating, or at least severely weakening, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia (with the assistance, however opportunistic, of Sunni tribesmen and insurgents); and keeping the Kurdish territories stable.
All other goals—for instance, keeping the Sunni-Shiite civil war from escalating or from expanding beyond Iraq's borders—are chiefly political in nature and can be accomplished only with the cooperation of neighboring countries.
Given America's declining influence and prestige in the region, it might be best for any accord or agreement to be—at least for public consumption—clean of Washington's fingerprints. And here, strangely, is where France might jump in.
According to a fascinating story by Adam Gopnik in the Aug. 27 issue of The New Yorker, when the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, met Condoleezza Rice, she said, "What can I do for you?" Sarkozy replied, "Improve your image in the world. It's difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful—that is, of necessity, the leader of our side—is one of the most unpopular countries in the world. It presents overwhelming problems for you and overwhelming problems for your allies."