The sectarian violence that’s taking place in the Baghdad area…is probably the gravest threat to stability that there is in the country right now.
— General John Abizaid, chief of US Central Command
July 25, 2006

It is a new challenge. This isn’t about insurgency, this isn’t about terror, this is about sectarian violence. And it’s a new challenge for the government. And they recognize that.
–Stephen Hadley, national security adviser
July 25, 2006

The greatest threat Iraq’s people face is terror; terror inflicted by extremists.
–Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister
July 26, 2006

Why is the United States in Iraq?

That is question that is increasingly difficult for the White House to answer coherently–and honestly. This past week, George W. Bush, appearing at a press conference with Maliki, noted that the horrific and intensifying violence in Iraq of recent weeks is “terrible” and that more US troops will be deployed to Baghdad. But who–and what–is the enemy? And what can US troops do about disorder and violence there?

Sectarian violence, according to Abizaid and Hadley, is now the main problem in Iraq (which was predicted by some experts before the invasion). Maliki, for obvious reasons, does not concede that. He wants US troops to remain in Iraq. Consequently, when he spoke to the US Congress on July 27, he depicted the fight in Iraq as a struggle pitting lovers of democracy (his government and the United States) against “terrorists” connected to those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. (“I will not allow Iraq to become a launch pad for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations,” he declared, in a line rather reminiscent of the previous work of White House speechwriters.) In a fact sheet, the White House noted that when Maliki met with Bush, the Iraqi leader “made clear that he does not want American troops to leave his country until his government can protect the Iraqi people.”

Mission creep is under way. The cause–despite Maliki’s Bush-like rhetoric–is no longer combating jihadists (which replaced weapons of mass destruction as the reason for the war). It’s making Iraq safe from Iraqi religious extremists. Maliki’s government cannot protect Iraqis from their own neighbors, so he is looking to Bush to be his nation’s cop-on-the-beat. But can the US military be an effective police force in a society increasingly plagued by sectarian violence that has little, if anything, to do with the fight against al Qaeda and Islamic jihadism? Maliki’s own government is even part of the problem. Death squads connected to the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry have been lead players in the current killing spree. If Maliki cannot control these elements, how can the US military? (In his speech to the US Congress, Maliki didn’t address the knotty matter of the government-linked death squads. He briefly referred to “armed militias” but claimed that the rule of law and human rights are “flourishing” in Iraq.)

Sunni leaders–who once called for US forces to quit Iraq right away–now fear the ascendancy of Shiite killing squads so much that they have quieted their demands for a US withdrawal, fearing such a move would leave the Shiite militias even more unfettered. But should the United States remain in Iraq in response to such concerns? If so, US troops would be risking and sacrificing their lives to assist a government that is tied to death squads in order to prevent (Sunni) opponents of the leading (Shiite) bloc of that government from being killed by (Shiite) supporters of that leading bloc. Yes, politics in the Middle East have always been notoriously complicated and Byzantine. How many books–or intelligence reports–has Bush read about the intricacies of Arabic culture, history and politics?

Bush, all too obviously, has no good ideas how to navigate these shoals–which may not be navigable. After saying that more troops would be deployed to Baghdad, Bush was asked by an Iraqi reporter what could be done to improve the security situation in Baghdad. “There needs to be more forces inside Baghdad who are willing to hold people to account,” he replied. “In other words if you find somebody who’s kidnapping and murdering, the murderer ought to be held to account. And it ought to be clear in society that that kind of behavior is not tolerated….We ought to be saying that, if you murder, you’re responsible for your actions. And I think the Iraqi people appreciate that type of attitude.”

In other words, just say no to killing. That’s not much of a plan. And there’s not much of a role for US troops in such a plan.

Bush has led the United States into a rough thicket in Iraq. It has taken him months–perhaps years–to acknowledge the troubles there. And his inadequate description–it’s “terrible”–is far more upbeat than the depictions shared by reporters and others who have come back from Iraq in recent weeks bearing depressing and ugly tales of a society falling apart.

Iraq is a mess. Bush bears much of the responsibility for that. He invaded the country supposedly to defend the United States from a threat that didn’t exist. He did not ensure that there were proper plans for the post-invasion challenges. He did nothing as his national security aides bungled one key strategic post-invasion decision after another. Now he has to contend with a violent sectarian conflict that his elective war unleashed. He has, to a limited degree, acknowledged the problem. He hasn’t yet admitted there may be little he can do about it.