Whenever I have met someone who knows George Bush, I am told that he is much more articulate and impressive than he appears in public. Right now, we could all do with a bit more reassurance of that nature, thin as it is. Over the past couple of days the President, under the pressure of the imminent mid-term elections, has been much more open than ever before about the situation in Iraq. It has been a spectacle almost as terrifying as the conflict itself.
In a White House news conference on Wednesday, when asked to give examples of things that his administration had got wrong, the first thing that Bush said was that "we overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people."
This was an extraordinary interpretation of events. Through the instant "de-Baathification" programme, the cutting off of salaries and the licence to loot all government buildings, the immediate post-Saddam administration under Paul Bremer ensured that there was no Iraqi "civil service" to provide anything, essential or otherwise.
Bush's second admission was that "we did not expect the Iraqi Army to melt away in the way it did". Again, since Bremer had immediately sacked the entire remaining Iraqi armed forces, it is hard to see why they had been expected to remain at their posts. Or perhaps Bush meant that it was most unfair of the Republican Guard to resort to delayed guerrilla warfare, rather than engage in open battlefield combat and be wiped out by America's massively superior fire-power.
Neither explanation is credible, and yet both might be true. In a later, more select gathering for a handful of journalists judged to be entirely sympathetic to his travails, the President was even more scarily disarming. He told them that "I'm trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure that is less violence than before, I guess." Yes, Mr President.
Yet when it came to the issue which most troubles American voters in all of this chaos - are our boys dying in vain and does the President care? - Bush displayed the unforced folksiness which made him a so much better campaigner than those Democrat woodentops Gore and Kerry: "If I didn't think that it was noble and just and that we can win, we're gone. I'm not going to keep these kids in there and deal with their loved ones. I can't cover it up when I meet with a family who's lost a child. I cry, I weep, I hug. And I've got to be able to look them in the eye and say we're going to win. I have to be able to do that. And I'm not a good faker."
It may not touch the spot for you, but those words are balm and succour to the American heartland.
What was left entirely unexplored, however, is what is meant by "winning" in Iraq. In one sense, the war has long been won. After all, the principal objectives were to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and make sure that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam is now on trial and, if there is a judge left in the country brave enough to do it, will be sentenced to execution.
The weapons of mass destruction, it turned out, didn't exist. That is obviously a catastrophic refutation of the original casus belli, but it makes the war no less of a victory from the military, rather than the moral, point of view.
It is in fact the absence of the smoking WMD which has forced Mr Bush and Mr Blair to invent a new definition of victory. Had vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons been found, the British and American public would have been relatively insouciant about the idea of leaving the country in a mess afterwards. We might have screwed up Iraq, but we would have saved the world - or so it could be claimed. That defence of the military action is not available; instead we must demonstrate that Iraq itself is a better place than it was when - in the words of the British Chief of the General Staff - we kicked the door in.
Unfortunately, such a comparison is entirely subjective. If you are a Kurd, then you will probably believe that Iraq is a much better place to be than when Saddam Hussein was in charge. If you are a Sunni, however, then unless you are making a great deal of money in the hostage-taking business, things are far worse than you could ever have imagined possible.
What is not a matter of opinion, however, is that if Mr Bush genuinely wants to impose some degree of order in Baghdad, then the current strategy has failed. There is an argument for the Americans not to be there at all. There is also an argument for a dramatic increase in US soldiers on the ground, since the newly-formed Iraqi Security Forces are clearly inadequate to the task assigned to them. There is no argument at all for the current half-baked compromise, with far fewer troops than were originally demanded by the US generals, and far too much reliance on unreliable indigenous forces, which in many cases are fronts for corrupt independent militias.
Nothing I have read about this is more compelling than something posted yesterday on The Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web". It was from an unnamed sergeant in the US Army intelligence corps based north-west of Baghdad.
He wrote: "The breakneck pace with which we're trying to push the responsibility for governing and securing Iraq is irresponsible and suicidal. The Iraqi Security Forces are so rife with corruption and Shia militia members that they have zero effectiveness... [The Shia militias] hold the real control of the city.
"They have intimidated into submission the local police. They are expanding their territories, forcing mass migrations... all while US forces do nothing. The Iraqi people have come to realise that American forces cannot protect them. We are too few in number and our mission is 'stability and support'. The problem is that there's nothing to give stability and support to.
"If we continue on as we are we will leave here with a fractured state, a Rwanda waiting to happen. 'Stay the course' is already killing a lot of people needlessly. Following through with such inane nonstrategy is going to be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of Sunnis... [but] the commitment required to save the situation is something I doubt the American public is willing to swallow."
One of the more alarming revelations in Bob Woodward's new book State of Denial is the extraordinary extent to which those around President Bush shield him from any bad news about Iraq: so it's hard to imagine anyone in the White House directing the President to the brutal analysis by this US Army sergeant north-west of Baghdad. George Bush will continue to wear that perplexed expression - not so much State of Denial as State of Complete Confusion.Reuse content