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Friday, Nov. 10, 2006 | As the Iraq war started more than three years ago, George Bush’s neoconservative supporters praised him for a courageous decision. He was betting his presidency on the war, they said.
This week, Bush lost his bet.
Voters could not get to Bush directly so his party paid the price, losing control of Congress. If ever there was a protest vote, this was it. By turning Congress back to the Democrats, voters rejected six years of Bush rule by division, fear and war.
This election was meant to bring the country back together again, back to the principles on which it is based – clean and open government, respect for the law, and international leadership built on our good name and our good example.
Hans Morganthau, the wisest of our international affairs scholars, said this about foreign policy:
“Never put yourself in a position from which you cannot retreat without loss of face, and from which you cannot advance without undue risk.”
That is precisely the position in which Bush put us, and voters punished him for it – two years too late in my view.
Iraq was the theme of this election, though there were sub-plots, all related to the same flaws of government that got us into Iraq – dishonesty, ignorance, secrecy, corruption, division, above all, an arrogant failure to respect American traditions and to learn from history.
On Iraq, the message was clear: change course. In responding Wednesday, Bush said he would not accept defeat in Iraq. It was the same phrase Johnson and Nixon used in Vietnam, and turns on one’s definition of defeat. Judging from other remarks on Wednesday, Bush is looking to the family fixer, James Baker, to pull his chestnuts out of the fire in the Iraq study group’s report next week.
The neo-cons have moved on. Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith have taken better-paying jobs, while columnists like David Brooks and Bill Kristol now blame the war’s failure on “incompetence” and “poor execution” (read Rumsfeld). Eliot Cohen, who worked for Wolfowitz, says the solution is to let an Iraqi military junta take over.
One might laugh if not for the tears: A military junta? That’s what Saddam had.
Tuesday’s revolt can’t be blamed on Rumsfeld or incompetence. This war, the colonial invasion and occupation of a nation that had done us no harm, was doomed from the beginning. Based on lies and distortions; opposed by half the nation, nearly all our allies and a plethora of distinguished military figures, it was the brainchild of a clique of Bush intimates with little knowledge either of history or reality.
Failure in Vietnam, wrote Morganthau in 1965, would result not from “defects of personality or errors of execution,” but from “false assumptions and dubious principles.” It is the same in Iraq.
It gives none of us satisfaction to have been right about Bush’s war. We wish Iraqis had greeted us with flowers and candy; that the war had ended, as Bush said, three months after it started. The neo-con idea of using military force to effect “regime change” and “nation-building” must truly be intoxicating.
But Bush was wrong, dead wrong, and the nation cannot excuse presidents – or Congresses – that are wrong about war, the most deadly of human enterprises. Bush’s war will plague U.S. interests and efforts in the world for decades. It is a monstrosity that that has killed and mutilated a generation of Iraqis and wrecked America’s good name.
Why do so many Americans still believe in the war? The polls – and Tuesday’s election – show war support is down to one in three, but that’s a lot of people. Knowing what they know; seeing what they see, how can they be in denial? They may be Republicans; they may patriots, they may be neo-cons. They still have eyes and ears.
They know – like the rest of us – that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, no links to 9/11. They know – like the rest of us – from ex-anti-terrorist chief Richard Clarke and from Britain’s Downing Street memo that Bush always intended to go to war: that the U.N. votes, weapons inspections, consultations, – all that was a charade, a Grand Guignol play put on to scare Americans into supporting a bad war.
Yet a third still believes in it – still believes in it though our intelligence agencies say war has made the threat of terrorism worse, still believes in it though the occupation grows situation grows grimmer by the day.
History is to the nation as memory is to the individual, says the historian. Anyone grounded in history knew that Bush’s war could not succeed. We weren’t guessing. We didn’t like Saddam Hussein any more than anyone else, just had a good idea – as did the first President Bush, advisers like Brent Scowcroft and Baker and a plethora of retired military officers – that invading Iraq was a really bad idea.
We will be leaving Iraq. Tuesday’s election showed that voters want a timetable for withdrawal, and polls show three-fourths of Iraqis want U.S. troops out within a year. (Another poll shows that nearly three-fourths of U.S. troops in Iraq think the occupation should end within a year.) These views are consistent with the intelligence reports about our presence being a catalyst for continued violence.
The goal is to achieve an honorable withdrawal that turns affairs back over to the Iraqis. We should establish a process of simultaneous consultation and disengagement. As consultations progress, the first U.S. troops will come out. We should state clearly our intention is to complete withdrawal by the end of next year. Our partial redemption will be in providing the economic help needed to rebuild what we have broken. However much it may cost, it will be less than we spend on the war.
Three years ago Bush’s chief economic adviser was fired for saying the war would cost $200 billion. At $200 million per day, we have already spent that much.
His firing was a perfect example of the fatal flaw of this administration – believing it could deny history and create its own reality.
It was the flaw that led to failure in Iraq.
It was the flaw that led to Tuesday’s election results.
The neo-cons, it turns out, were right about only one thing: Bush did bet his presidency on his war.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.