AUSTIN, Texas — I think we need to stop President Bush from looking people in the eye. On Tuesday, he told the new prime minister of Iraq that he had come to Iraq to “look you in the eye.”

Do we even know if the cultural significance of “looking someone in the eye” is known or accepted in the Middle East? Even if Middle Easterners are kindly disposed toward looking one another in the eye — say it’s not considered rude or worse — would they know what to make of Bush’s declaration to U.S. troops that he had come to look “Prime Minister Maliki in the eyes and determine whether or not he is as dedicated to a free Iraq as you are.”

Who knows if Iraqis think this is determinable by the deep-eye look. Come to think of it, I’m not sure it is.

People interpret things differently. Not long ago, I was in the beautiful home of an exceptionally rich person, even by Texas standards. And I saw what I took to be a lovely sort of “treatment” on the spiral staircase — a swathe of cloth draped artistically about the twisting spiral. Commentator/author Bud Trillin was with me, and he thought the painters had been there and just left a drop cloth on the stair rail, which is the reason you can’t take Bud anywhere. Maybe it’s like that in the Middle East with the deep-eye look — people just can’t tell.

Now here’s the media all in a tizzy because the president hardly told anyone about his trip before he arrived in Iraq — a big shock. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s surprise, but I trust you have considered that the president couldn’t let anyone know he was going because the bad guys would try to kill him. Sorry to take any of the fizz out of the celebration of the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, but let’s not get overexcited.

Bush said his message to the Iraqi people is, “Seize the moment.” Do we think they knew what he meant? Is carpe diem part of Iraqis’ general knowledge? Then, the president urged the Iraqis to end sectarian strife. I, too, think this would be a good idea. Thought so for at least three years. Basically, what I’m getting at here is, do you suppose the rest of the world just assumes George W. Bush is a moron when he goes overseas?

I realize the trip was arranged to try to take advantage of the killing of Zarqawi, for Bush to “get a bounce out of it,” as they say back in Washington politics. But I’m just not sure there’s much bounce left in Iraq. It’s not good enough anymore to turn a corner or see a light at the end of the tunnel — too many corners, too many lights later. I guess we can still seize the moment, although the confusion over how Zarqawi died kind of undercuts that.

The trouble with Iraq is what keeps happening there. We haven’t rebuilt the place — in fact, it keeps getting worse in terms of basic services. You have to admit, leaving a place worse off than Saddam Hussein kept it is not a bragging point. Number of people killed keeps going up, signs of militias out of control, sectarian violence, spreading anarchy … not good.

Years ago, Mrs. T. Cullen Davis, of tacky Texas murder trial fame, said as her husband tried to grab a fabulous necklace he gave her, “This ain’t no takesie-backsie.” (You may now take a deep breath while considering the depth of that comment.)

I feel that Iraq is also a “no takesie-backsie.” It is a putrid human, social and political disaster, and getting worse, not better. The people who got us into this should not be forgiven — they should not even get a “bounce” from it. There is only one thing I want from them — to get us and our Army out of there, instead of cavalierly announcing that will be left to “future presidents.”

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