It hardly seems possible for President Bush to raise his bet on the war in Iraq, the single policy that already defines his presidency and threatens to define his party for a decade.
Yet how else can we describe what the administration has done this week? On the same day that the Washington Post and ABC News released a poll in which nearly 7 of 10 Americans disapproved of his handling of the war, President Bush gave a high-profile speech in Charleston, S.C., declaring "America can accept nothing less than complete victory" in Iraq.
The president then raised the stakes still further by suggesting anything less than that would be a personal triumph for Osama bin Laden. With heavy emphasis, he framed the conflict in Iraq not as a sectarian struggle between long-feuding factions there, but as a duel between two outsiders — the United States and al-Qaida. The forces of America versus the forces of Sept. 11. Us versus them. Good versus evil.
The actual country of Iraq, it seems, is just the unfortunate stage on which this Armageddon occurs. Iraq's own history, religion, politics and culture are of less importance, distractions that were not mentioned in the president's speech.
This White House has long had a penchant for drawing situations in dramatic black-and-white. This rhetoric may be galvanizing in the moment, especially in the midst of wartime. But as a strategy for overcoming war weariness at home – or for actually winning a war abroad – it leaves much to be desired.
First, it is manifest to the nation and the world that Mr. Bush is not winning this struggle that he insists on portraying in apocalyptic terms. That means the coming consequences will be seen as apocalyptic as well, and that's not good news for America.
Second, the president is raising the ante at a moment when the cards he is holding do not beat those already showing on the table. This means that as the realpolitik plays out, he and his government and nation will sacrifice more and more for less and less.
Third, the president is redoubling his war commitment at a time when even his supporters are reconsidering theirs. More and more conservatives are bailing on the policy, in the country and in Congress as well. This month we have heard as many as a dozen Republican senators expressing sentiments ranging from doubt to outright opposition.
What is the administration doing to reassure us? It is returning to its invocation of a connection between Iraq and "the people who attacked us on 9-11." Once, this was an undertone to the central cause for war: Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. That cause is gone. Now, the president tells us, Iraq is all about Osama bin Laden, a man who — not so long ago — the administration declared did not matter.
Will this born-again bogeyman still be enough to keep the president's party behind him in the Senate, where the minority Republicans have thus far been able to frustrate the majority?
That may depend on how Republican senators react to another story that appeared this week, on the same day the president gave his Charleston speech. USA Today and the New York Times and others reported that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have a plan that relies on strong U.S. troop presence to placate Iraq for two years or more.
That timing may well reflect a realistic or even optimistic assessment of the security situation in Iraq. But it can hardly be reassuring to Republicans who have been vigorously pointing toward mid-September as a moment of reckoning for the Bush policy in Iraq.
Earlier this month, the Senate debated a measure that would have begun U.S. troop withdrawals in 120 days. Republicans begged for General Petraeus to be given until September. The citing of this month became a mantra.
That will continue, in spite of the president's Charleston speech. Within hours of that speech, House Republican leader John Boehner appeared on CNN and referred to a September reassessment of the war strategy three times in the course of one answer.
Even as Congress clings to that timing, the Bush administration seems to be letting it slip. General Petraeus' No. 2 general has suggested he needs until November for an assessment. Others have suggested the real sea change will come next March, when the Pentagon's troop rotation will no longer be able to sustain the current surge.
Or perhaps the moment of truth will be deferred to mid-2009, as the latest plan from Defense and State seems to indicate.
If the only acceptable outcome is Mr. Bush's ideal of "complete victory," then even those deadlines may need to slip. Setting the bar for American success so high may put it out of reach indefinitely.
Given that reality, does it make sense to portray this fight as a duel to the death between the United States and al-Qaida? Is that how we want the world to judge what it sees happening in Iraq?