George W. Bush received a standing ovation Monday from the National Restaurant Association convention, which might have been expected had he promised to guarantee a right to exploit immigrant cooks and dishwashers through a guest-worker program. But that wasn’t the president’s topic, and the applause came after Mr. “Mission Accomplished” bragged about the latest “incremental” progress in Iraq.

“[W]e have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush said of the partial formation of a new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. If you search for this quote on Google, though, be careful not to confuse it with the many other similar moments in Iraq’s recent history. For example, two years ago Bush said that “the rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology, and give momentum to reformers across the region,” after the U.S. officially turned over sovereignty.

And then there was the “important milestone” Bush celebrated when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003; the “turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom” two months later when Iraqis elected a parliament; and the selection of a prime minister last month, which was “an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq” and “a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.”

With all these turns, it’s no wonder Americans are a little “unsettled” about this quagmire, to use the commander in chief’s own delicate description of the public’s deep and bitter frustration with this war. Despite the public’s nausea over the war, hope springs eternal for a White House panicked by the prospect of a Democratic-controlled Congress with the power to investigate its mendacity. And so Bush was back in form Monday, proclaiming that the latest head honcho in Iraq has got the right stuff and that the terrorists are quaking in their sandals.

Problem is, like everything about his Iraq policy since he lied to us about Saddam Hussein being connected with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the president refuses to allow reality into his picture. Because when a government is formed that has no power over a slew of murderous sectarian militias and will govern from behind the walls of a “Green Zone” protected by an occupying army, it still lacks the legitimacy of a wooden dinar. “Iraqis are becoming foreigners in their own country,” said the new prime minister, acknowledging, unlike our president, that things have been getting worse, not better. Bush, on the other hand, is so desperate for positive signs that he is happy just to get a callback from an Iraqi leader. “He wouldn’t have taken my phone call a year ago,” Bush said Monday of the new Iraqi parliament speaker. “He’s now taken it twice.” Wow, and it cost only $200 billion and thousands of maimed and dead American soldiers to get the president’s call returned.

Bush might want to save space on his speed-dial list, though, as Iraq is probably the most dangerous place on Earth to be a politician. Iraq is a failed state and has been since Bush’s neocon advisers led him by the nose to not only take the country by force but to then demolish every governmental and military structure in place that might have been used to support some semblance of post-invasion stability.

For his part, the new prime minister, himself a militant Shiite, seems to know where the real power lies: Even as he pledged to stop the murderous “sectarian cleansing” most eagerly undertaken by Shiite militias, he promised to “honor” and “make use” of those same forces.

The “turning point” Bush is actually concerned about is the U.S. midterm elections, coming up fast in his windshield. Because Iraq isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon and the troops are not coming home, the president is once again trying to sell the lie of Iraqi progress in an attempt to keep his opposition from taking control of Congress and using subpoena power to ask the right questions about how we found ourselves in such a mess. Questions such as the one Bush pointedly ignored, about the missing WMDs, raised by at least one sober delegate to the restaurateurs’ convention. Or about how come Al Qaeda was able to operate in Iraq only after the U.S. invasion and not before. The pressing test for the ideal of democracy lies not with the Iraqis, who must make their own history, but rather with an awakened U.S. citizenry finally holding its imperial president accountable.

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