George W. Bush keeps trying to rally popular support for his war in Iraq. But he has little to offer other than stay-the course-ism. He cannot point to progress in Iraq. Nor can he point to a plan that would seem promising. Thus, he is left only with rhetoric–the same rhetoric.

That was on display during a presidential press conference at the White House on Monday. Here’s a selective run-down.

One reporter asked,

More than 3,500 Iraqis were killed last month, the highest civilian monthly toll since the war began. Are you disappointed with the lack of progress by Iraq’s unity government in bringing together the sectarian and ethnic groups?

Bush replied,

No, I am aware that extremists and terrorists are doing everything they can to prevent Iraq’s democracy from growing stronger. That’s what I’m aware of.

He could not bring himself to say he is disappointed by the government’s inability to curb the sectarian violence? That was an odd way to defend his actions in Iraq. Bush did go on to say,

And, therefore, we have a plan to help them–“them,” the Iraqis–achieve their objectives. Part of the plan is political; that is the help the Maliki government work on reconciliation and to work on rehabilitating the community. The other part is, of course, security. And I have given our commanders all the flexibility they need to adjust tactics to be able to help the Iraqi government defeat those who want to thwart the ambitions of the people. And that includes a very robust security plan for Baghdad.

A question: when would it be fair to judge the plan’s success? The plan has supposedly already been implemented. Yet the death count is rising in Iraq. A sharp-eyed (or sharp-eared) reporter should have asked, “If the death count goes up next month, will that mean the plan is a failure? And how should Americans (and Iraqis) evaluate whether the plan is working?” Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, what are the operative metrics?

Bush repeatedly said that it would be disastrous for the United States to disengage from Iraq. He claimed,

It will embolden those who are trying to thwart the ambitions of reformers. In this case, it would give the terrorists and extremists an additional tool besides safe haven, and that is revenues from oil sales.

Regarding the “reformers”–and Bush noted this included reformers throughout the region–the US invasion of Iraq and the recent (and partially still ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah) has undercut the reformers of the Middle East, or so say many such reformers. These reformers report they are on thinner ice because of US policies. Bush’s actions, according to the grunts of Middle East reform, have not emboldened them. As for turning Iraq into a safe haven for terrorists and extremists, Bush has already accomplished that. An American journalist who had recently returned from Baghdad told me a few weeks ago that neighborhoods within a mile or so of the Green Zone in Baghdad are totally under the control of insurgents. Whole swaths of Iraq are beyond the authority of the Iraqi government. These areas can be safe havens for all sorts of miscreants. And it’s fear-mongering to suggest that if the United States were to withdraw that anti-American jihadists will control the state and be enriched by oil revenues. Last time I checked, the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all had an interest in Iraq. These groups are unlikely to turn the nation over to the few jihadist terrorists operating within Iraq.

One exchange did not inspire confidence. A reporter asked,

Mr. President, I’d like to go back to Iraq. You’ve continually cited the elections, the new government, its progress in Iraq, and yet the violence has gotten worse in certain areas. You’ve had to go to Baghdad again. Is it not time for a new strategy? And if not, why not?

Bush responded,

You’ve covered the Pentagon, you know that the Pentagon is constantly adjusting tactics because they have the flexibility from the White House to do so.

The reporter–who was not asking about tactics–interrupted:

I’m talking about strategy.

Bush then said:

The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That’s the strategy.

Actually, that’s not a strategy. That’s a goal. A commander in chief should know the difference. A strategy is how one goes about–in a general way–accomplishing goals. Tactics are how one implements the strategy. After Bush talked about giving military commanders in Iraq the “flexibility” to “change tactics on the ground,” this interesting back-and-forth occurred:

Sir, that’s not really the question. The strategy —

THE PRESIDENT: Sounded like the question to me.

Q: You keep — you keep saying that you don’t want to leave. But is your strategy to win working? Even if you don’t want to leave? You’ve gone into Baghdad before, these things have happened before.

THE PRESIDENT: If I didn’t think it would work, I would change — our commanders would recommend changing the strategy. They believe it will work.

Seems as if Bush was saying that his commanders are in charge of the strategy. But isn’t that his job?

Later on came this exchange:

Q: But are you frustrated, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Frustrated? Sometimes I’m frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I’m happy. This is — but war is not a time of joy. These aren’t joyous times. These are challenging times, and they’re difficult times, and they’re straining the psyche of our country.

To recap: he is not “disappointed” (see above), but he is occasionally “frustrated.” Yet hardly “surprised.” Wait a moment. Does that mean he invaded Iraq realizing that the war there would turn into an ugly sectarian conflict that would bog down US troops for over three years? If so, why didn’t he say something before the invasion about this? Or, better yet, why didn’t he and the Pentagon prepare for such an eventuality? Citizens should hope he was damn surprised by what has happened in Iraq–even though that would not make him any less culpable.

Bush repeatedly acknowledged there is a legitimate debate whether the United States should disengage from Iraq. He noted,

I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me.

This statement is–how should we put it?–not as accurate as it could be. Campaigning for congressional Republicans in 2002 Bush said that Senate Democrats were “more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.” That certainly is not how one would describe a patriot. More recently, Bush’s own Republican Party accused the Democrats of plotting to weaken the country. After a federal judge ruled that Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program was unconstitutional, the GOP sent out an email headlined, “Liberal Judge Backs Dem Agenda To Weaken National Security.” Accusing someone of having a gameplan to “weaken national security” is indeed questioning their patriotism. Has Bush decried this Republican National Committee tactic? Not in public.

The press conference allowed for a brief exploration of Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq. One journalist inquired,

A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out [such as chaos in Iraq, terrorist running amok, etc.] seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn’t gone in. How do you square all of that?

Bush fired back:

I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would — who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

Well, as both Charles Duelfer and David Kay–administration-appointed WMD hunters–reported, Saddam did not have any serious capacity to produce WMDs. None. He had no weapons and no serious production capability. So, yes, one would have to “imagine” such a threat. As for Saddam’s relations with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now deceased), there is no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with him before the war. As Colin Powell noted in his disastrous UN speech, Zarqawi at the time was operating out of northern Iraq, which was territory not under Baghdad’s control. Once more, a healthy dose of imagination is required to follow Bush’s argument.

The president continued:

You know, I’ve heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of “we’re going to stir up the hornet’s nest” theory. It just doesn’t hold water, as far as I’m concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

That led to this point-counterpoint:

Q: What did Iraq have to do with that?

THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

Q: The attack on the World Trade Center?

THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it’s part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a — the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize….Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.

Not exactly. Dick Cheney and other hawks in the administration repeatedly said that there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11, citing an unconfirmed, single-source intelligence report that 9/11 ringleader Mohamad Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague five months before the attack. Yet the FBI and the CIA (and later the 9/11 Commission) had concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate this report and that the meeting likely did not happen. True, Bush officials did not claim that Saddam had “ordered” the attack, but they did suggest that Baghdad had participated in the attack–even when there was no evidence to support that assertion.

So over three years after Bush ordered US troops into Iraq, he is still claiming that Saddam was something of a WMD threat and he is refusing to acknowledge that his administration did attempt to link Saddam to the 9/11 attack–all while professing he has a strategy (or is it a set of tactics?) to win in Iraq. This is not the sort of stuff that will hearten a nation. Bush remains lost in Iraq, with the rest of the country (and the world) held hostage by the mistakes and miscalculations he will not concede.