WASHINGTON - If President Bush's Iraq policy were a bus, it would now be running on vapors. That much is clear from his televised speech to the nation on the heels of the Petraeus/Crocker progress report to Congress.
Once again, the president has shown his contempt for the intelligence of the American people by casting an initial rollback of his 30,000-troop surge as a withdrawal, when upon its projected completion sometime in 2008 it will leave U.S. manpower at the 130,000 pre-surge level.
This administration-by-slogan has come up with another motto - "Return on Success" - to replace "A New Way Forward," which in turn replaced Bush's formula that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
By now, we should be used to this tactic of polishing the Bush team's behavior with meaningless words while hewing to the same old course, going back to the 2000 presidential campaign.
When Bush lost to Sen. John McCain, running as a reformer, in the New Hampshire primary, the next morning the Texas governor's campaign trotted out as a new slogan, "A Reformer With Results," apparently an effort to steal McCain's thunder.
Bush did indeed rebound and beat McCain in the South Carolina primary, but without offering any notable substantiation of his self-definition as a reformer. Rather, he cut McCain down with distortions of McCain's record and smears against his personal life.
Once in the White House and launching his supposedly pre-emptive attack on Iraq on grounds it had weapons of mass destruction, Bush or one of his wordsmiths labeled the invasion "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to describe what has become a four-year occupation.
The description of the troop escalation of 30,000 U.S. forces starting last January was itself an exercise in wordplay. By labeling it a "surge," Bush left the connotation that it would be a quick and temporary influx, with a limited objective of providing stability in Iraq to facilitate internal political reconciliation.
By the acknowledgment of the administration now, this temporary surge will last a year and a half after it was first declared. When it is finally ended, the American force level will be where it was, or even slightly higher, than when it started.
The objective of the pullback of 5,700 forces by Christmas is obviously to placate the growing public impatience with the war, and to stem the attempt of the Democratic leadership in Congress to force a real exit strategy on the president.
For all of Bush's earlier extravagant goals of achieving "victory," now watered down to an undefined "success," he admitted that even if the Iraqi political leaders get their act together, "their success will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency," though with "many fewer American troops."
This observation enabled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to interpret it as signaling a Korea-like open-ended commitment to Iraq that will amount to Bush's passing the mess on to the next president.
Democratic presidential frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton and most of the other Democratic contenders have said that, if elected, they will end U.S. involvement in Iraq as their first order of business. But doing so will not be so easy for the next president, whether Democratic or Republican.
Meanwhile, the GOP candidates continue to put up a good front in supporting Bush while obviously wishing the whole disastrous business he initiated would somehow go away. Of all the Republican hopefuls, only McCain, whose presidential ambitions were so brutally crushed by Bush in 2000, aggressively supports the war. He does so out of conviction and the realization that tapping into GOP patriotism may be his best ticket to nomination and election next year.
McCain, his campaign wavering on the brink of bankruptcy and clinging to modest support in the polls, has argued that what he called the "Rumsfeld" strategy was a failure, and that he urged the surge on Bush and now can claim it is working.
In this sense, McCain has just as much at stake in its being so as Bush does. For the president, it's his legacy on the block. For McCain, it's his last reach for the presidential nomination that Bush, with slogans and smears, denied him in 2000. ---
Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press. You can respond to this column at email@example.com.