When President Bush addressed the nation Monday on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, he said "our most important mission" is helping the Iraqis secure Baghdad.

That statement brought tears to my eyes, and not because I'm hearing horror stories from Iraqi friends whose relatives are dying. I teared up from anger at remembering the early days in occupied Baghdad, when looters were destroying Iraqi ministries and universities. Iraqis anxiously asked: "Why don't the Americans impose a curfew and establish order?"

The Iraqi insurgency was born right then; hard-line Baathists used the looting to test whether the Americans would crack down. Instead, Don Rumsfeld blew the looting off with his cocky proclamation that "freedom is untidy." This signaled the Baathists that the Americans had no grasp of what they had gotten themselves into.

Four years later, the president wants to secure Baghdad. But does the White House have any better grasp of today's Iraqi realities?

Despite some positive signs from new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and some glimmers from Condoleezza Rice, I have my doubts.

The White House still seems to be afflicted with the strategic myopia that led to the Iraq tragedy. That means things could get much worse over the next two years.

Think back. Just about every premise on which the White House Iraq venture was based has proven wrong. The administration assumed - ignoring reams of contrary evidence - that Iraq was a middle-class, secular society that would quickly become a democracy. It assumed that Iraq's glorious example would inspire regime change in neighboring Syria and Iran. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This false premise - that postwar Iraq, in Paul Wolfowitz's words, would be like "post-liberation France" - made the administration complacent. The White House believed it could ignore the dismay of the world, and of Iraq's neighbors. The Bush team also thought it could threaten Syria and Iran and not expect them to make trouble. Again, wrong.

IIlusions and consequence

So now the president confronts the consequences of his illusions, even if he doesn't admit to them in public. Iraq is a broken state, its government dysfunctional and led by religious parties. Its middle class - already degraded by years of sanctions - is fleeing abroad. The bloody Iraqi example has undercut the weak Arab democracy movement.

And Iran, immeasurably strengthened by the ouster of Saddam, is now a close ally of Iraq's Shiite-led government. Meantime, the rise of Shiite Iraq, and the new strength of Shiite Iran, threaten to precipitate a dangerous clash between Shiites and Sunni Arabs in the region. Should that clash get out of hand, think prices over $100 a barrel for oil.

Yet it's still not clear the White House will really try to contain the regional chaos its policies have triggered. Such an effort would require a major diplomatic push that includes talks between the United States and Iran.

True, U.S. officials just sat down in Baghdad for talks with counterparts from Iraq and the region, including Tehran. These talks, and a scheduled follow-up in April, do offer hope that the administration may finally pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iraq problem.

Yet it's unclear whether the administration will take advantage of the opening these talks offer. U.S. officials have sat before with Iran in multilateral forums. For the talks to have meaning, the United States would have to engage directly, one-on-one, with Tehran.

Rather than promote Iranian regime change, America would have to explore its common interest with Iran in making Iraq stable. We would have to urge Iran and our Sunni Arab allies to iron out their grievances. Is it possible for the White House to do such an about-face?

Complicating antics

I don't know. Certainly the antics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad don't make the task easy. But it's no use harboring illusions that Iraq will stabilize while Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads.

There's lots of talk about a possible American air strike on Iran's suspicious nuclear energy program. Perhaps Vice President Cheney still believes an air strike is a realistic option. Most Pentagon brass know it would lead to disaster. Rather than end Iran's nuclear program, it would involve the United States in the kind of unanticipated consequences we met in Baghdad.

Bush's anniversary speech stayed focused on military action as the way to "prevail" in Iraq. In private, U.S. officials concur that the solution in Iraq must be political, not military. The big question: Will Rice or Gates or key Republicans in Congress convince Bush that diplomacy is the key?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.

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