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Memo: "Ignorant of what is going on" or unwilling or unable to stop it
NY Times Editorial
December 1, 2006

President Bush's news conference yesterday with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq had an even greater than usual sense of unreality about it, with Mr. Bush insisting that Mr. Maliki is "the right guy for Iraq" and that American troops will stay "until the job is complete," while Mr. Maliki asserted that his country is a democracy and he is not a captive of Shiite militias.

But the disconnect seemed even more stunning once you realized that Mr. Bush's national security adviser had sent him a memorandum three weeks ago describing how Iraq was being pulled apart by sectarian hatreds and warning that Mr. Maliki was either "ignorant of what is going on" or unwilling or unable to stop it.

The memo, which was published by The Times this week, at least answers the question of whether Mr. Bush is being told what's going on in Iraq. In it, his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, describes how Mr. Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has deprived Sunnis of basic services, blocked military actions against Shiite targets and purged Iraq's most effective military commanders to ensure Shiite dominance. The memo also warns that Mr. Maliki may not have "the political or security capabilities" to free himself from his narrow militia-dominated political base.

But the president's performance this week — his refusal to impose any deadlines on Mr. Maliki to start reconciliation talks and break with the militias, and his refusal to give the Pentagon a deadline to stand up an effective Iraqi Army — tells us once again that Mr. Bush does not listen.

That does not bode well for James Baker and the Iraq Study Group, which, according to reports, is likely to call for some pullback of American combat troops along with more aggressive regional diplomacy. Yesterday, Mr. Bush seemed eager to preempt that advice, brushing off suggestions that he talk directly to Iran and insisting that there would be no "graceful exit" from Iraq.

Mr. Bush's lack of curiosity was well known even before he became president, but as time has gone on and bad news has mounted, that disinterested quality has turned into a stubborn refusal to hear bad news. The country simply cannot afford it any longer. Three years of having Mr. Bush trust only his gut has plunged Iraq into bloody chaos and done untold damage to America. There needs to be an urgent change in policy.

Mr. Hadley's memo actually provides a clue to how Mr. Bush has managed to avoid facing hard facts. Despite the horrific situation it describes, the policy recommendations fail to convey any strong sense of urgency and seem to shrug off American responsibility for what has gone wrong. Either the president's security adviser was afraid to be as blunt as the situation requires or he, too, has managed to convince himself that the disaster is really not all that disastrous.

The president's advisers need to tell him all the harsh truths about Iraq in the vivid terms they require; they need to tell him how little time he has left to act. This administration has been orchestrating a foreign policy disaster of epic proportions, and history will remember both that the president failed to hear the warning bells and that many others failed to ring them loudly enough.

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