It was nice while it lasted. The interlude of relative quiet in Iraq had me believing we had turned a corner, that maybe the new year would mean a new beginning.
Two days of mayhem last week cured that illusion. More than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks, including 30 mourners at a funeral and 60 pilgrims at a Shiite shrine. Iraqis weren't the only victims. Eleven American soldiers died in 24 hours, five when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in Baghad Thursday, bringing the American death total to 2,193.
The temptation is to ask why, as if something new has happened. In fact, nothing new has happened. The war has been a roller-coaster all along, with brief periods of relative quiet shattered by G-d-awful carnage. We lost 848 troops in 2004, and 846 last year. Through big swings of ups and downs, the overall result is a bloody consistency. And even now, the savage nature of the enemy defies comprehension.
Yet the recent lull seemed different because there were real reasons to believe, or at least hope, the pattern might be changing. The Dec. 15 elections, the third in the last year, had gone incredibly well. Insurgent attacks were few and the Sunni minority turned out in large numbers.
True, the elections followed a bloody patch, with 180 American soldiers killed in October and November. But it was possible to see those attacks as a spasm leading to the elections.
Moreover, President Bush had gone on the offensive throughout the fall, giving four well-received speeches in which he defined-down success. Instead of "total victory," he talked about growing Iraqi readiness and said more G.I.'s would be devoted to training instead of combat. There were even rumblings about a modest cut of 5,000 in the American force, which has usually been about 138,000. It didn't hurt that, in three television interviews, Bush took a softer tone toward critics, saying they were well-motivated but simply wrong.
The result was a bounce in public support for his handling of the war. After skidding to a low 39% approval rating in a Washington Post/ABC News survey in early November, Bush reached 47% just before Christmas. I wasn't alone in thinking we had turned a corner.
So it was a mass illusion. And the next poll will probably show mass disillusion.
This is not to counsel retreat. As Bush has said repeatedly, quitting Iraq, or even setting a deadline, is not an option. As bad as Iraq is, it surely would turn into hell on Earth without our military creating some sense of security. Withdrawal would further destabilize the region and make Iraq a true terror breeding ground.
But events of the last few days have served to remind us of the horrible reality that there is no end in sight to the enemy's ability to strike. Bush can talk all he wants, and we can hope along with him. But all that matters are the facts on the ground or, more accurately, what we see from our homes. And as long as newspapers and televisions are filled with blood-splattered bodies and grieving families - Iraqi and American - support for the war will inevitably decline.
By all means, the President should rally the nation as often as he can. He must, lest even congressional Republicans, fearing the fall elections, abandon the cause and force him to change course. Many more weeks like the last one will send supporters running for the exits and there will be no words, or hope, to bring them back again.
If Bush has any better cards to play, now would be the time to show them. While there still is time.