An Unfinished Mission, The Washington Post, May 4, 2003

THE VICTORY celebration held aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln Thursday was well-deserved, both for President Bush and for the servicemen who cheered him. Thanks to those who gathered on the carrier's deck and their comrades in arms, Saddam Hussein's homicidal hold on Iraq was broken in three weeks, with relatively small, if painful, losses of Iraqi and American lives. None of the disasters feared before the war has come to pass: neither burning oil fields nor bloody street-to-street battles; neither Arab revolutions nor armed interventions by Iraq's neighbors. Mr. Bush acknowledged before the war that these risks were real, but argued that they were outweighed by the risks of not acting: So far, he has been proved right. Nor can there now be any doubt that most Iraqis welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of his apparatus of terror. When the horrors of the Baathist regime -- now being confirmed in terrible but necessary detail -- are set against even the destruction and deaths of the war, it's impossible not to conclude that the United States and its allies have performed a great service for Iraq's 23 million people.

Still, it's also impossible to agree with the banner that was draped near Mr. Bush on the carrier deck, proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." Aides say the slogan was chosen in part to mark a presidential turn toward domestic affairs as his campaign for reelection approaches. But neither Mr. Bush nor the American public can afford to put Iraq on the back burner. There is much to be done; the greatest tests and risks still lie in the future. Perhaps Mr. Bush understands that reality; yet his reluctance to fully explain it to Americans or to work for the support he will need is troubling.

Remarkably, Mr. Bush described the Iraqi victory mainly as an episode in the war on terrorism, focusing on purported connections among Iraq, al Qaeda, and the attacks of 9/11 that have yet to be firmly established. He failed to mention Saddam Hussein and devoted only one sentence of 22 words to weapons of mass destruction -- which the United States presented to the United Nations and the world as the decisive reason for military action. Odds are that the dictator will eventually be found, and evidence that has surfaced so far strongly suggests that illegal weapons or weapons programs will be uncovered as well. But the Bush administration should not treat the matter as an afterthought: The weapons could still prove deadly to Americans if they are not secured, and American credibility will be seriously damaged if proof of chemical, biological or nuclear arms is not eventually produced and certified by U.N. inspectors or other independent experts.

Even more important will be the consolidation of a democratic government in Iraq. Mr. Bush has now promised this outcome so often and unambiguously that he has greatly raised the stakes of achieving it; in particular, the future of American relations with the Arab world is riding on it. Mr. Bush noted in passing on Thursday that the transition "will take time," but he has done little to prepare Americans for the large and sustained commitment of U.S. troops and resources that will be needed. He may even be kidding himself: Though history shows that it has taken many years and a coalition of nations to successfully guide other countries from dictatorship to representative government, Pentagon officials are racing to unilaterally put together an Iraqi transitional government within a month and speak glibly of completing the process within a year or two.

In reality, success in Iraq as well as in the war on terrorism will require considerable initiative on a front Mr. Bush hardly mentioned: alliances. The war on terrorism, as the president has frequently acknowledged, requires not just military operations but cooperation with many nations on intelligence, finance and police work. Yet the Iraq war has damaged U.S. ties with a number of states and weakened the United Nations. Before the war began, Mr. Bush said he would work to repair institutions and alliances when the fighting was over; instead, an administration intent on punishing antiwar Europeans and excluding the United Nations from Iraq's postwar administration is widening the rifts. If the mission in Iraq is really to be accomplished, Mr. Bush will have to change course.