WASHINGTON — With due respect to T.S. Eliot, August is a cruel, cruel month.

In this August as the summer withers, optimism dies that in the eighth month of the third year since the American invasion of Iraq we will begin to see the hopeful “year of transition” that the U.S. Senate has called for overwhelmingly.

It was a lopsided yet forgettable vote. After all, the “year of transition in Iraq” has thus far been a year of transition to more violence and death, to fresh evidence of the fragility of the new Iraqi government, to grim accounts of the security crisis by U.S. generals. This year of transition has meant a transition to more — not fewer — American troops in Baghdad, with homeward-bound soldiers literally called back to the war zone while they were en route out of it.

The Baghdad morgue and Iraq’s health ministry report a record number of killings last month, with 3,438 civilians having turned up dead — about double the toll in January, according to The New York Times. Before the newest count, the United Nations already had estimated that Iraqi civilian deaths were running at more than 100 a day. The U.N. said the count was necessarily low, due to the difficulties of record-keeping in a war zone and tallying deaths outside of Baghdad.

The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al Mashhadani, a Sunni distrusted by rival Kurdish and Shiite politicians, is openly toying with relinquishing his post — a rumination that drew acrimony even from his fellow Sunnis. The Iraqi government, formation of which was heralded by President Bush last spring as a “milestone,” a “turning point” and a “watershed event,” is perilously ineffectual.

“What has been clear is that the new government is very weak. It cannot really extend its writ anywhere,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the nonpartisan International Crisis Group. “The government is not doing any governing. It’s not providing services to anyone. The place is really adrift.”

This was neither the hope nor the political calculation behind the Senate vote last November. Under pressure to respond to the Iraq crisis with something other than endorsement of the administration’s incompetence, Republican leaders offered their own, tepid version of a response to public dissatisfaction with the war. Their resolution called for 2006 to be “a year of transition” to “full Iraqi sovereignty, with Iraqi security forces taking the lead for the security of a free and sovereign Iraq” and creating conditions for the “phased redeployment” of U.S. forces.

Among those supporting the lofty language were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. The 79-19 vote in favor was bipartisan.

But now a sober Warner, questioning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top generals earlier this month, dares to ask if the original congressional resolution that authorized the president to invade Iraq still applies now that U.S. troops appear to be caught in the drift toward civil war. “What is the mission of the United States today … if that situation erupts into a civil war? What is the mission of our forces?”

The question gets to the truth of where we are in Iraq — caught with no immediate or obvious way out.

The Bush administration seems incapable of seeing reality and is disdainful, always, of diplomacy. Yet Hiltermann and others warn that a full-blown civil war in Iraq could not be contained within its existing borders, and would instead engulf the whole region — with Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other states instigating strife, or threatened by it. One way to head this off is with a regional peace summit of all parties whose fates are tied to Iraq’s. It is the sort of talkfest that Bush abhors; he must be forced to it.

For Republican senators weary of Bush’s unrestrained militarism, of the president’s petulant refusal to talk with foreign leaders he finds objectionable, of the crushing burden the Iraq war has placed on the armed forces, of the unconscionable sums spent on a war with unclear purpose, it is past time to show they are leaders and not just politicians. However many seats Democrats win in the House and Senate elections this fall, there will be no new plan for Iraq without the Republicans.

Anyone can pass a resolution. It takes courage to resolve a crisis.

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