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An Iraq alternative

John Kerry can't undo his past equivocations and contradictions on Iraq, but his Monday speech made a compelling case that the Bush administration has "misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect" of the war. The president immediately tried to caricature Kerry's comments, but the Democratic challenger's indictment can't be dismissed so easily. The war is the defining issue of this election year, and Kerry's straight-on critique warrants the attention of voters who until now could have been forgiven for thinking this campaign is about smaller differences on smaller issues.

Kerry's words were well-chosen. The Bush administration misled the country about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime and miscalculated the fierce resistance our forces would face even after Hussein was removed from power. And the administration continues to mismanage the war and the parallel reconstruction effort. The president's own National Intelligence Estimate paints the gloomy prospect of an open-ended military commitment in an increasingly hostile and unstable Iraq.

The president offers no plausible way out of the bloody mess he has gotten us into, but Kerry's own plan for ending the war is only slightly more hopeful. Kerry says he would win more help from our allies, speed the training of Iraqi security forces, improve reconstruction efforts and ensure national elections.

The president says Kerry is proposing "exactly what we're currently doing." That's not quite true. Tuesday at the United Nations, Bush made only a perfunctory plea for additional international help in Iraq. Having splintered our traditional alliances, he is in no position to expect much more. A new president would be unlikely to persuade other countries to send more troops to Iraq, at least until conditions are stable enough for a peacekeeping force. But Kerry would be in a better position to solicit diplomatic and economic help from governments alienated by the Bush administration.

Kerry also makes a valid case that the White House has failed to live up to its own promises for rebuilding Iraq. Less than $1-billion of the $18.3-billion in reconstruction funds authorized by Congress has been spent, and the White House now says it wants to shift $1.8-billion of those funds to pay for additional law enforcement and security. Failing to build promised schools, roads, water systems and other essentials will add to the grievances of ordinary Iraqis who oppose the U.S. occupation.

Beyond those policy differences, Kerry raised the broader issue of trust. President Bush took the nation to war on the basis of a wildly exaggerated threat, and he now claims _ contrary even to his own private intelligence assessments _ that the war is going according to plan. Kerry is clear-eyed about the political and military realities in Iraq, and he has concluded that this war "has made us less secure and weaker in the war against terrorism."

No president can make realistic plans for the future in Iraq until he faces up to the grim reality of current conditions there. In delivering a more honest assessment of the war, and of the prospects for bringing it to an end in an honorable way, Kerry finally has presented a clear alternative to Bush administration policy that has been based on false claims about Iraq's past, present and future.