Let's cut through the blandishments, cant, and deference that so often mark a day of ceremony. Here's what was remarkable about President George W. Bush's inaugural address: It failed even to mention the principal issue on the minds of most Americans.
Not by name, anyway. Instead, the Iraq war was folded into a broader paean to freedom and America's role in promoting it around the world.
"Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon," the president said. "Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom."
That, plus references to those doing "the dangerous and necessary work of fighting our enemies" and those who "have shown their devotion to our country in deaths that honored their whole lives," was as close as Bush came to discussing Iraq.
Indeed, the president's lofty language in support of liberty proved such an airy exercise in abstraction -- how, for example, might it apply to allies such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia? -- that it lost sight of the specifics of the administration's policies.
But as he begins his second term, this question recurs: Is the president operating from a remotely realistic view of the world?
The record, certainly, is of an administration that lives in a dream world of its own devising. After Sept. 11, Bush and his team were so convinced that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as well as ties to Al Qaeda that they threw patience to the wind. Then, when the reality that there were neither WMD nor collaborative Iraq-Al Qaeda connections became unavoidable, the president asserted that he would have gone to war against Iraq regardless -- and insisted that invading Iraq had made us safer.
Meanwhile, none of the events the administration has seen as possible turning points in breaking the back of the resistance -- the capture of Saddam, the transfer of sovereignty, the routing of insurgents in Fallujah -- has had the hoped-for effect. In a preinaugural interview, however, Bush refused to set a timeline for drawing down US troops in Iraq, telling The Washington Post that he had had his "accountability moment" in the 2004 elections and suggesting that his narrow victory had ratified his approach.
And yesterday, Bush seemed intent on fast-forwarding beyond current doubts about US policy.
"From the perspective of a single day, including this day of dedication, the issues and questions before our country are many," the president said near the end of his speech. "From the viewpoint of centuries, the questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?"
All that adds to fears that an administration that saw weapons of mass destruction where there were none now entertains unrealistic expectations for postelection peace in Iraq.
Indeed, the vision the president presented to the American people doesn't describe the situation that US Representative Martin Meehan encountered during his recent fact-finding trip to Iraq. Rather than displaying a violence-discouraging determination, our open-ended occupation is actually making things worse there, the congressman says.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Meehan has just completed a detailed white paper calling for an announced schedule for an American withdrawal from Iraq over the next 12 to 18 months. His logic is simple: the US presence in Iraq has become a rallying point that unites the opposition and galvanizes Iraqis into warfare.
During a period when the United States has increased its troop commitment from 115,000 to about 153,000, attacks have become more frequent and more deadly, he writes. And despite our successes in capturing or killing insurgents, "most estimates put the core insurgency in the 20,000 to 40,000 range with a support network in the 100,000 to 200,000 range."
"I believe that the insurgency is really fueled by the fact that we are seen as an occupier," Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, said in an interview. "We need to deal with that, and one way to do it is to lay out a timetable. In 12 to 18 months we could certainly draw down the majority of our soldiers." In the time between now and then, we need to focus intently on training Iraqi security forces, the congressman says.
The picture the congressman paints has little of the soaring rhetoric of Bush's inaugural address. Yet Meehan is offering something more important: An overdue dose of realism -- and a US exit strategy for Iraq.
© 2005 Boston Globe