Never mind the inevitable claims that John Kerry is soft on terrorism. What he must address is the question of how his policy in Iraq would differ from President Bush's. And his answer should be that unlike Mr. Bush, whose decisions have been dictated at every stage by grandiose visions and wishful thinking, he will get real - focusing on what is really possible in Iraq, and what needs to be done to protect American security.
Mr. Bush claims that Mr. Kerry's plan to secure and rebuild Iraq is "exactly what we're currently doing." No, it isn't. It's only what Mr. Bush is currently saying. And we have 18 months of his administration's deeds to contrast with his words.
The actual record is one of officials who have refused to admit that their fantasies about how the war would go were wrong, and who have continued to push us ever deeper into the quagmire because of their insistence that everything is going according to plan.
There has been a lot of press coverage of the administration's failure to do anything serious about rebuilding Iraq. Less attention has been given to its parallel failure to take the security problem seriously until much of Iraq had already been lost.
Long after it was obvious to everyone else that we were engaged in an escalating guerrilla war, Bush appointees clung to the belief that they were fighting a handful of dead-enders and foreign terrorists.
As a result, they casually swelled the ranks of our foes - remember, Moktada al-Sadr was never going to be our friend, but he didn't have to be our enemy. They even treated Iraqi security forces with contempt, not bothering to provide them with adequate training or equipment.
In an analysis titled "Inexcusable Failure," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies details how the U.S. "failed to treat the Iraqis as partners in the counterinsurgency effort." U.S. officials, he declares, are "guilty of a gross military, administrative and moral failure."
That failure continues. All the evidence suggests that Bush officials still think that one more military push - after the U.S. election, of course - will end the insurgency. They're still not taking the task of fighting a sustained guerrilla war seriously.
"Three months into its new mission," The New York Times reported, "the military command in charge of training and equipping Iraqi security forces has fewer than half of its permanent headquarters personnel in place."
At the root of this folly is a continuing refusal to face uncomfortable facts. Confronted with a bleak C.I.A. assessment of the Iraq situation - one that matches the judgment of just about every independent expert - Mr. Bush's response is that "they were just guessing." "In many ways," Mr. Cordesman writes, "the administration's senior spokesmen still seem to live in a fantasyland."
Fantasyland extended to the Rose Garden yesterday, where Mr. Bush said polls asking Iraqis whether their nation was on the right track were more positive than similar polls asking Americans about their outlook - and he seemed to consider that a good sign.
Where is Mr. Bush taking us? As the reality of Iraq gets worse, his explanations of our goals get ever vaguer. "The security of our world," Mr. Bush told the U.N., "is found in the advancing rights of mankind."
He doesn't really believe that. After all, he continues to praise Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, even as Mr. Putin strangles democratic institutions. The subtext of Mr. Bush's bombast is that because he can't bring himself to admit a mistake, he refuses to give up on his effort to turn Iraq into a docile client state - an effort that is doomed unless he can figure out a way to come up with a few hundred thousand more troops.
We don't have to go there. American policy shouldn't be dictated by Mr. Bush's infallibility complex; our first priority must be our own security. And in Iraq, that means setting realistic goals.
On "Meet The Press" back in April, Mr. Kerry wasn't as forthright about Iraq as he has now, at long last, become, but he did return several times to a point that shows that he is on the right track. "What is critical," he said, "is a stable Iraq." Not an Iraq in our image, but a country that isn't a "failed state" that poses a threat to American security.
The Bush administration has made such a mess of Iraq that even achieving that goal will be very hard. But unlike Mr. Bush's fantasies, it's still in the realm of the possible.
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.24.04