Where are we going in Iraq?
"We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq," said President Bush on Thursday from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, at the start of his long retreat from the White House.
His comments came after at least 29 American soldiers had been killed in the first four days of August, many of them from the community of Brook Park, Ohio.
The president defined job completion as developing democracy in Iraq and training Iraqi troops.
"Our troops will come home as soon as possible. 'As soon as possible' means when those Iraqis are prepared to fight. As Iraq stands up, our coalition will stand down," he said.
Bush expressed hope that the families of those who had lost loved ones would "take comfort in the understanding that the sacrifice was made in a noble cause."
He made no mention of his flawed rationale for launching the war begun in March 2003 or his wrongful declaration on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in May that "major combat operations" were over. Nor would one expect such candor quite yet.
Despite Vice President Cheney's claim that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes" and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's effort to paint a positive picture of the war in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, little evidence exists that the war effort is going well.
According to a chart on the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count Web site, the average daily U.S. military fatality count in August was 5.8, after four days, compared August 2004 when the death rate was 2.12 for the entire month and August 2003 when the rate was 1.13 for the month.
A less statistically cold picture of fatalities can be seen in a review of the past week:
--On Monday, eight Americans were killed, including six snipers.
--On Tuesday, two soldiers were killed, including one at the Baghdad airport by a sniper.
--On Wednesday, 14 marines were killed when an explosive device flipped over their 25-ton armored amphibious troop carrier.
--On the same day, four other soldiers were killed. Three were killed by a car bomb in Baghdad.
--On Thursday, a staff sergeant was killed.
The Associated Press reported on Monday that the average daily rate of insurgency attacks was 68 in July 2005, up from 47 in July 2004.
A military officer told the Washington Post that the insurgents were "probably going off to school" where they learned to make bombs better designed to penetrate armed vehicles.
In the face of the worsening situation in Iraq, the Bush administration offers two responses. One is tough talk—we will not leave. The other is that things are going better than Americans realize and conflict is winding down.
Administration defenders make the last point with much frequency and a twist. They blame the media for not telling the good stories about all the successes.
Neither tough talk nor happy spin is working for the administration, as evidenced by a new AP-Ipsos poll that finds only 38 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the war, a significant drop from a year ago.
A better approach would be a new policy, one that begins with straight talk about the mistaken reasons for the war and develops a new strategy.
A new policy would necessitate a new leadership team, one in which hubris would be seen as a vice and humility would be accepted as a virtue. Bush's current team has failed the nation. They no longer deserve the public's trust.
A new policy would necessitate that the president discharges the religious right from his war council. After all, the religious right blessed the war, often supporting it as a holy crusade. Their moral arguments were badly flawed. The president listened to their affirmation, and the country has suffered dreadful results.
Most of the leadership of the faith community said the war did not pass the time-honored just war theory and cautioned against a rush to war. Had Bush listened to these leaders, he might well have avoided this disaster.
A new policy is unlikely unless Washington politicians hear clearly and repeatedly that local leaders expect real changes in the administration and a new policy in Iraq.
Christians of all stripes need to speak quickly and insistently from a moral vantage point to congressmen and senators about the need for change.
Clergy, in particular, need to offer moral direction to our elected officials. Like the prophet Amos, clergy need to call for a mighty river of change and let politicians work out the irrigation system.
A good time for these conversations is in August, while our elected leaders are on recess.
The old way is paved with destruction; the new way might provide a path to peace.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.