George W. Bush, between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, gave a series of speeches seeking to justify his policy in Iraq.  The opening shot came at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on November 30, when he outlined the new “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” and declared that there is no alternative to a complete victory.  At the Council on Foreign Relations on December 7, the President said that “some are calling for us to withdraw from Iraq on a fixed timetable,” but doing so “would give the terrorists exactly what they want.”

That was all old hat, but addressing the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia on December 12, Mr. Bush said something interesting.  He asserted that “the entire world thought [Saddam] had weapons of mass destruction” but added that even “knowing what I know today”—i.e., that the Iraqi dictator had no WMDs—“I’d make the decision again.  Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country.”

Two days later, on December 14, Mr. Bush went a step further, making what sounded like a startling admission.  “[I]t is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,” he said.  “As President, I’m responsible for the decision to go into Iraq—and I’m also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities.  And we’re doing just that.”  In a highly polished television address on December 18, he repeated the same point: “It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.  But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.  As your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.  Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

The mainstream media inexplicably confused Mr. Bush’s acceptance of responsibility for the decision to attack Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence with his supposed acceptance of responsibility for that flawed intelligence itself.  On December 14, FOX News’ Brit Hume thus declared that Mr. Bush “said he takes full responsibility for the decision to invade and for any intelligence failures.”  A similar verdict was passed by the pundits at NPR, CNN, and countless print-media outlets.

Talking to Hume immediately after the speech, however, the President should have dispelled any such notions when he reasserted his old claim that he and Congress had “looked at the same intelligence” before the war.  If it had been Mr. Bush’s intention to “take full responsibility for any intelligence failures,” he would not have needed to redeploy the misleading argument about “the same intelligence.”  Furthermore, in the same speech on December 14, Mr. Bush repeated the old claim that “now there are only two options before our country: victory or defeat.”  That is not the language used by an apologetic, chastised President who is rethinking his policies.

So what was the point of his “accepting responsibility,” such as it was?  It came in the midst of a very rough patch for the President, and the cynic may conclude that Mr. Rove et al. had deemed that a dose of ostensible humility, devoid of any politically significant substance, could do Mr. Bush no harm.  The Senate had just refused to renew the USA PATRIOT Act in its present form, and the White House had lost a battle with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona over the use of torture.

More seriously still, the New York Times had just revealed the large-scale surveillance of U.S. citizens without court warrants, and Mr. Bush was on shaky grounds trying to justify the practice by claiming that he was given open-ended, sweeping executive powers with the War Powers resolution drafted in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.  He is mercifully aware that constant and thorough surveillance of the Muslim community in the United States is necessary and fully justified, and it is of course absolutely essential to control pro-jihadist groups, such as CAIR.  Nevertheless, although the right to privacy is not enshrined in the Constitution, it is implicit in many of its provisions.  Maintaining at least a nominal judicial scrutiny of the process is essential.

In all of his dozen or so speeches on Iraq in the final weeks of 2005, Mr. Bush did not manage to correct the impression that he and his team continue to confuse operational effectiveness with strategy.  The White House keeps reasserting the strategic objective as “helping the Iraqi people defeat the terrorists and build an inclusive democratic state.”  This definition, its elaboration, and the President’s oft-repeated justifications are all eerily reminiscent of Robert McNamara’s outline of American goals in Vietnam, stated in 1964.

The Iraqi operation is in deep trouble, and Mr. Bush’s oratory has done little to rescue it or to reassure the nation that the effort is worth yet more blood and treasure.  His real problem is that the reasons for war remain obscure, and it may be years before we find out what combination of interests and motives caused it.