WASHINGTON — You might have thought that now isn’t the most opportune time for the elected leaders of both the United States and Iraq to pack up and head to the beach, ranch or villa for a nice, long vacation. Silly you.

You probably reasoned that with 162,000 U.S. troops sweltering in the war zone, with the Iraqi government fracturing along sectarian lines and with what is billed as a make-or-break report from the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, due next month, maybe tradition ought to be ignored and the summer heat withstood just this once. You doubtless pointed out that no matter how uncomfortable triple-digit temperatures might be for the grandees of Washington and Baghdad, soldiers burdened with body armor and combat boots — and the constant threat of getting shot or blown up — have it a bit worse.

You were right, of course — it’s unbelievable that the Iraqi parliament is taking a month-long vacation, that Congress has left for its traditional August recess and that George W. Bush is heading off to Kennebunkport and then to Texas. What you failed to take into account is that none of this really matters, because the war in Iraq is on autopilot.

If you listened to Bush at his news conference Thursday, you heard a man who’s not about to let something as petty as objective reality change his mind — and who’s not going to pay attention to what the Iraqi government or even his own government might say or do.

Reporters asked about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s all-smiles visit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. The White House has angrily accused Iran of fostering chaos in Iraq and supplying advanced explosives that are killing U.S. troops. But Maliki was quoted as telling his host that Iran played a “positive and constructive” role in Iraq.

Bush’s response: “In his heart of hearts,” Maliki didn’t really believe what he had said.

Reporters asked about the failure of the Iraqi government to make any discernible progress toward political reconciliation. Actually, the “unity” government has been deserted by Sunni leaders who see Maliki as more interested in establishing a dominant position for the Shiite majority than in building a nation.

Bush’s response: The three members of the Iraqi “presidency council” — a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni whose head-of-state duties are largely ceremonial — are still on speaking terms and are “trying to work through the distrust.”

That makes sense only if he was using “distrust” as a euphemism for “hatred” or “civil war.”

At least now maybe people will understand what I’ve been saying for months, which is that Bush doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. He doesn’t care that the Iraqi government has failed to meet its political benchmarks. He doesn’t care that Maliki is getting so cozy with the mullahs in Tehran. He doesn’t care that Republicans in Washington are getting so nervous about having to face an election with the war still raging and no end in sight.

On Thursday, Bush laid out his Iraq policy in plain language, with none of his recent gibberish about al-Qaida in Pakistan being the same as al-Qaida in Iraq, only different, but really the same, kind of. This time we heard the classic neocon analysis — the same grand vision that got us into this mess. If Bush hasn’t changed his mind by now, he ain’t gonna.

Bush said we have to stay in Iraq to “change the conditions that caused 19 kids to be lured onto airplanes to come and murder our citizens” — and that’s the heart of the matter. Forget for a moment that Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. The neocon idea is that the only way to eliminate terrorism in the long term is to create democracies that will offer potential terrorists an alternative future of freedom, prosperity and hope.

No one can argue against the flowering of democracy, and the United States should help freedom bloom wherever it can. But what on earth would make Bush — or the neocon ideologues who are his enablers — believe that any nation would appreciate being invaded, occupied for years by tens of thousands of foreign troops and having a particular brand of Western democracy imposed at the point of a gun?

I can’t answer that question. But if you think Bush is going to care what Petraeus’ report says in September, get out of the sun immediately and drink lots of water. You’re delirious.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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