It is fair to say that a good many Americans perceive George W. Bush to be a doltish incompetent who does not know the first thing about fighting terrorism.

But, whatever the president’s actual level of competence may be, it is now clear that he has even less respect for the intelligence of the American people than his critics have for his cognitive capabilities.

As the president struggles this week to make a case for the staying the course that leads deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq, he is, remarkably, selling a warmed over version of the misguided take on terrorism that he peddled before this disasterous mission was launched.

Apparently working under the assumption that no one has been paying attention over the past two and a half years, Bush delivered a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy Thursday in which he dismissed calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. “Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now,” the president argued, before concluding that, “It’s a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?”That’s a scary scenario. Unfortunately, it is one that the president created. And it is one that the president still fails to fully comprehend.

To hear the president tell it, the U.S. went to Iraq to combat bin Laden’s al Qaida network.

The problem, of course, is that going to Iraq to confront al Qaida in 2003 was like going to the Vatican to confront Protestants.

Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party cadres were a lot of things, but they were never comrades, colleagues or hosts to the adherents of what Bush referred to in his speech as “Islamic radicalism,” “militant jihadism” or “Islamo-fascism.”

If any individuals on the planet feared and hated al Qaida, it was Hussein and his allies. The Iraqi Baathists were thugs, to be sure, but they were secularist thugs. Indeed, many of the most brutal acts of oppression carried out by the Iraqi regime targeted Islamic militants and governments aligned with the fundamentalists. The eight-year war between Iraq and Iran pitted the soldiers of Hussein’s secular nationalism against the armies of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical vision of Islam. That is why, while the United States remained officially neutral in the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, it became an aggressive behind-the-scenes backer of Hussein. As part of that support, the U.S. State Department in 1982 removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. That step helped to ease the way for loans and other forms of aid — such as the U.S. Agriculture Department’s guaranteed loans to Iraq for purchases of American commodities. It also signaled to other countries and international agencies that the U.S. wanted them to provide aid to Hussein — and if the signal was missed, the Reagan White House and State Department would make their sentiments clear, as happened when the administration lobbied the Export-Import Bank to improve Iraq’s credit rating and provide it with needed financial assistance. If any lingering doubts about U.S. attitude remained, they were eased by the December 20, 1983, visit of Donald Rumsfeld, who was touring the Middle East as President Reagan’s special envoy, for visits with Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

As it happened, the U.S. was reading Hussein right. In a region where the common catchphrase is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Hussein was not merely someone who was fighting a neighboring country. He was fighting the spread of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that the U.S. so feared because he was a committed secularist. Hussein promoted the education of women and put them in positions of power. Under Hussein, Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims enjoyed a greater measure of religious freedom than they have in most Middle Eastern countries in recent decades. Hussein included non-Muslims among his closest advisors, most notably Aziz, a Christian adherent of the Chaldean Catholic faith that remains rooted in Iraq.There was a paranoid passion to Hussein’s secularism. He and his vast secret police network remained ever on the watch for evidence of Islamic militancy, and when it was found the response was swift and brutal. It was an awareness of the fact that Hussein was a bulwark against militant Islam that led key aides to President George H.W. Bush to argue against displacing him after the liberation of Kuwait by a U.S.-led force in 1991.

Nothing about Hussein’s Baathist ideology changed during the 1990s. So it came to no surprise to anyone who knew the region that the 9/11 Commission, after aggressively investigating the matter, found no operational relationships existed between al Qaida and Iraq before the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.

Now, after having removed the bulwark against militant Islam, Bush describes an Iraq that is rapidly filling up with followers of al Qaida, and warns that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would allow the militants to “use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against nonradical Muslim governments.”

What Bush did not say in his speech Thursday was that his own actions had created the dire circumstance he described.

If George Washington’s mantra was that he could not tell a lie, George Bush’s is that he cannot admit a mistake.

But the president’s refusal to face reality has isolated him from those who are serious about fighting the spread of terrorism.

General Peter Cosgrove, the former head of Australia’s Defense Forces, rejects the notion that staying the course is the smart response. In fact, the well-regarded former commander of the military of a key U.S. ally, says that withdrawal makes sense because it will “take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops.”

It is Cosgrove who suggested the late 2006 withdrawal date that has been taken up by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the first member of the Senate to urge the development of an exit-strategy timeline.

For those who do not trusts the assessment of an Australian, consider that Porter Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who says, “The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.”

The president who argued that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to fight terrorism has instead opened up a new country to al Qaida’s machinations.

The president who argued that the U.S. must continue to occupy Iraq in order to prevent the spread of terrorism has instead created a quagmire in which even the head of his own CIA says that the U.S. presence is being exploited by terrorists to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.

Now, George Bush argues for staying the course.

Perhaps Osama bin Laden would agree with that strategy.

But the American people are wising up.

The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll tells us that only 32 percent of those approve of Bush’s handling of the war. A remarkable 59 percent now say that the invasion a mistake. And an even more remarkable 63 percent say they want to see some or all U.S. troops withdrawn.

John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has frequently reported from the Middle East over the past two decades. For more of his analysis of the administration’s misguided approach, check out his book The Rise and Rise of Dick Cheney, out in paperback November 2 from The New Press.