George Bush has once again shifted his requirements for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, now that public opinion is against the war and his approval ratings have dipped below 50%.

Initially, the war was declared “won” on May 1, 2003, when George Jr. landed on the infamous aircraft carrier with “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned on victory banners.

But the military mission was just the first step, George assured us; the reconstruction mission was equally important. US troops would help refurbish a few schools, deliver some medical supplies, pose for NGO-style photos with lots of children in the background, etc. Then the troops could come home while the US-installed Governing Council could worry about the rest. But the deterioration of Iraqi infrastructure was much worse than US war planners had envisioned: a decade of sanctions had seen to that. And US troops, not trained for police duties, quickly ran into trouble with angry Iraqis peacefully demonstrating in Fallujah, with unemployed army veterans demanding their pensions, with ordinary Iraqis trying to navigate checkpoints.

By August 2003, a guerrilla insurgency forced the Bush administration to backpedal on the “mission accomplished” boast. Now the mantra was “we defeat the insurgency, then the troops can come home.” But 2004 brought the Abu Ghraib scandal, the farcical caucuses that put the unpopular and largely unknown Ayad Allawi and his corrupt government into power, US military attacks against Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters in Najaf and Karbala, the rise of a fundamentalist jihad in Iraq staffed largely by suicide bombers from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and an intensification of the Sunni guerilla war. By the end of 2004, the US drive to end the insurgency was clearly failing. The new mission became a simpler one: train Iraqi troops to fight the insurgency instead, and then US troops could come home.

But eight months have passed since that time, and the US mission to train Iraqi troops and police forces is as much a failure as the mission to defeat the insurgency. In late July, the Inspector Generals of the State Department and the Department of Defense released a report on the status of the training mission, which optimistically called it a “qualified success.” Yet, all but one of the key judgments in the report were negative. Many Iraqi recruits are only marginally literate, have criminal records, or have physical handicaps that make them unsuitable for police work. The vetting procedures are abysmal; the report openly acknowledges that insurgents have infiltrated the Iraqi police forces. In addition, the training program was set up by US and Coalition forces without any input from Iraqis–a major problem, because no one within the Iraqi government is willing to own or take control of the program, or take responsibility for its success.

But those are not the worst problems for the program. The highest hurdle is the lack of money. The new Iraqi government can’t pay the salaries of its current employees, much less an army of new recruits. Already, Iraqi government employees have joined street demonstrations against the new Iraqi government, demanding their back pay. Adding armed police and soldiers to that mix will create a powder keg.

US goals for the training program are in direct opposition to the Iraqi government’s needs. The Iraqi government wants to put a freeze on hiring new police recruits until the current recruits can be properly equipped and money found to pay their salaries. Donald Rumsfeld, however, has openly put pressure on the Iraqi government to back down. Rumsfeld, himself, is under pressure from Congress to make good on his promise of training large numbers of Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible. The US has spent $1.8 billion so far–and hundreds of millions more in Iraqi funds–on the training program, with unsatisfactory results.

In the past month the Bush administration has simply stopped talking about training Iraqi troops. It’s no longer the standard by which we can gauge whether the mission is successful. There’s now a new yardstick; the current phrase is “pursue the political process”–which, when translated, means getting the interim Iraqi government to adhere to UN deadlines for writing and approving a new Constitution and holding full, nationwide elections by December. Then US troops can come home.

August 15th is the UN deadline for a new Constitution to be written and approved by the Iraqi parliament. On August 1st, representatives of the Constitutional Committee agreed to seek a six-month extension to draft the Constitution, given that some very important issues have not been resolved. Those issues include the rights of women, how much power the new nation will allow its regional assemblies (the Kurds want a strong regional government and weaker federal government, while the Sunnis want the opposite), and what role Islam should play in the new laws governing the nation. These are highly contentious and difficult issues to resolve, and not likely to be tackled in two weeks. In other words, Iraqis can have a slow and carefully drafted Constitution or they can have a quick and sloppy one.

The Bush administration favors the quick and sloppy one. The US ambassador to Iraq told the Constitutional Committee in no uncertain terms that they had to be finished by August 15th. No exceptions and no extensions, even if it causes problems later.

In other words, the Bush administration is digging to find some kind of victory from a war that has been a defeat on all fronts, from the military aspect to the reconstruction aspect to the political aspect and even the overall “War on Terrorism” angle. We’ve been hearing for months that the nightmare scenario is a US troop withdrawal that leaves a civil war behind: Iraq turned into a country with no government mired in a conflict that will eventually draw its neighbors into a regional war, or even a Third World War.

The truth is not nearly as bad as that. All sectors of Iraqi society are heavily invested in rebuilding their country without outside intervention. Efforts by the US-installed Iraqi government to negotiate with the Sunni insurgency have given rise to several Sunni political organizations, and most of them will participate in Iraqi politics once the occupiers have left. Iraq’s neighbors are more eager to see a stable Iraq than we give them credit for.

No, the real nightmare scenario is the one that keeps George Bush and the leaders of the Republican Party awake at night: US withdrawal with our tail between our legs, and a US public that knows the war was a mistake from the beginning.