Time for yet another Bush Iraq photo op. Heck, the last one — when the president popped into the liberated Green Zone to once again proclaim a turning point in his obviously endless war — worked so well that he went up five points in some opinion polls.

No matter that the government in Baghdad is as dysfunctional and powerless as ever, that the rate of U.S. and Iraqi deaths has climbed since Bush’s visit, that the war is on a trajectory to cost significantly more than $1 trillion, and that the American flag is desecrated by examples of rape, murder and torture. Most of the world acknowledges that the U.S. presence in Iraq is part of the problem, not the solution, but the facts on the ground matter not at all to the Bushites for whom “staying the course” in Iraq is perceived as a winning electoral strategy at home.

Victory in Iraq is a secondary, and more elusive, goal. The most recent source of optimism was the much ballyhooed death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq whom the White House had systematically built up in importance to frame our occupation of Iraq as part of the “war on terror.”

The reality, however, always has been that so-called “foreign fighters” play a small part in the virulent Iraqi civil war. For most Iraqis, we are the main foreign fighters in Iraq, and our occupation strengthens the hand of extremists, exacerbates sectarian tensions and impedes the development of a unity government based on compromise.

Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised that Zarqawi’s death has not brought any diminution of violence, as was admitted by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in a recent interview with the BBC: “[I]n terms of the level of violence, it has not had any impact at this point. As you know, the level of violence is still quite high.” In the past few days alone, we have seen the abduction of a top Sunni female legislator, a blast in a Shiite market that killed 66, and a rise in violence against British forces in the once-pacified south.

Yet, as Bush’s slight rise in the polls indicates, there are still many nave Americans eager to be convinced that we have turned some magical corner in Iraq, despite all evidence to the contrary. In fact, the Karl Rove-led campaign to retain GOP control of Congress now is trying to spin the war as an asset, and all too many Democrats are willing to play along. Chief among those Bush fellow travelers is Sen. Joe Lieberman, who on Monday announced his intention to run as a ticket-splitting independent, should Democrats in Connecticut reject his Senate reelection bid because of his cheerleading for the war.

“I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party,” said the former vice presidential candidate, who last December made the anti-democratic claim that “We undermine the president’s credibility at our nation’s peril.”

Less overt is the waffling of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), but her confusion is arguably more damaging to the Democrats, given her position as the party’s front-running presidential aspirant. At least Lieberman stands exposed as a true believer in the Bush crusade, whereas Clinton continues to support a war that her confidants tell us she knows is wrong.

If Clinton does indeed know better than to support the war, let her say it out loud — and clearly. Why is it so difficult for the Democrats to grasp that waffling doesn’t work as a form of leadership? The public takes it as a sign of moral disarray. Does anyone doubt that John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election when he whiffed on Bush’s curveball question: Knowing what you know now, would you have supported the Iraq invasion? He should have instantly said, “Hell no, you lied to Congress and the American people and deserve to be defeated precisely for that betrayal of the public trust.”

Instead, as he ruefully insisted last month when I questioned him on this, he allowed a campaign spokesperson to say that he still supported an invasion that most Democrats had long since realized was a terrible mistake. In the following weeks of the race, he attempted to regain some footing on the issue, but it was too late — the inept Bush had once again been allowed to seem Churchill-like by comparison.

It is high time the folks who make up the base of the Democratic Party took a page from the playbook of the Republican right and backed candidates willing to stand up for their values, rather than wasting their money, time and votes on those who won’t.


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