Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Series: 21 Reasons to Elect Kerry


The delusions and deceit on Iraq just keep coming

President Bush wishes to be viewed, and judged, as a "war president." Fair enough.

How has he done in leading the "war on terror" that was thrust upon him? Less well than his chest-thumping would have you believe.

How has he done in leading a second war - Iraq - in which he exalted his gut instinct over advice and evidence?

Very poorly, indeed.

The President's central claim is that these are prongs of the same war, that the Iraq invasion was the logical, urgent next step in the battle against those who attacked us on 9/11. He repeats this with ever more fervor as evidence mounts that he is flat wrong.

No Iraqi weapons stockpiles were found. The case that Saddam Hussein had major ties to al-Qaeda or 9/11, always tissue thin, has evaporated.

Predictions his team made about how a liberated Iraq would morph smoothly into a model democracy have collapsed amid blood and chaos.

Yet the President takes it as gospel that his gut instinct was right. Patriotism does not require Americans to indulge this President's delusions. They should view these wars with clear eyes. Iraq is a scary but salvageable mess from which the United States can make no easy exit.

The Iraq-terrorism linkage has become, with awful irony, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Iraq, by our own doing, has now become a magnet and rallying point for Islamic jihadists. Creating a stable, self-governing Iraq is imperative. A strife-torn Iraq would be a calamitous breeding ground for terror.

Americans also need to grasp that the struggle to thwart and roll up the terrorist network that really did attack us on 9/11 is not going as well as Bush campaign rhetoric claims.

The Afghanistan invasion was justified and the recent election there was a strikingly hopeful sign. But the United States pulled its punches in Afghanistan (saving some for Iraq?) and failed to eradicate al-Qaeda. Rather than cowering in a corner, since 2001 al-Qaeda and its allies have struck hideous blows in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, Jakarta and elsewhere.

Yet, polls still show Americans trust President Bush over John Kerry to protect them from terror attacks.

Why? First, they are scared, with reason. They want to believe and trust their commander in chief. And they are decent folks. They don't want their country to kill, or U.S. soldiers to die, for no good reason. So the truth of Iraq - a war based on false premises, where military victory was undermined by errors that left America less safe - is hard to accept.

What's more, this election offers two views of Iraq: the President's blithe confidence that all will work out, and Kerry's honest assessment that this is a mess that will be difficult to clean up. Which view is more appealing when you're scared? Unfortunately, not the realistic one that stands the best chance of salvaging the situation. The President and his team add to the confusion with distortions.

They are masters at insisting, with straight faces and indignation that anyone could doubt them, that the sky is green. They invented a new rationale for the Iraq war every time an old one frayed. Now, they rewrite history feverishly to excuse their mistakes. Let's review and debunk:

War is unpredictable; no plan could have anticipated what's gone wrong in Iraq. Funny, a prewar State Department study - along with many think-tank experts and journalists - predicted quite accurately what could go wrong and how to avoid it. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shelved the State study, and did his own thing. It was as if he, Bush and Vice President Cheney had rose-colored glasses surgically attached to their noses. Their plan relied on a shared fantasy: joyous liberation followed by a swift, oil-financed transition to a new government led by their pet, the liar Ahmed Chalabi.

The generals in Iraq got whatever they asked for. Everybody outside the Bush-Cheney campaign now agrees too few troops were sent to secure Iraq. That mistake, along with the bad decision to disband the entire Iraqi army, enabled the insurgency. But generals who disputed Rumsfeld's faith in lean force levels felt the lash of his disapproval. So they shut up.

Everyone, including John Kerry, thought Hussein was a threat before the war. They thought that because the administration's National Intelligence Estimate screamed it. That estimate was, in the phrase of Greg Thielmann, the State Department's top Iraq weapons analyst until late 2002, "chock full of hypothetical exaggerations intended to scare the bejeezus out of people."

Yes, Mr. Cheney, it would be awful if a terrorist strolled down Market Street with WMD in a suitcase. But the real question in 2003 was: What were the chances of Hussein's making that happen? The real answer: about the same as of Philly being hit by a comet. What were the chances of grave threats (al-Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, loose nukes in Russia) growing worse as Bush pursued his Iraq obsession? Answer: a lot higher.

A campaign is under way to scapegoat the CIA for the wrongful estimate. The CIA did lack solid intelligence on Iraq. But some of its analysts tried, as did Theilmann, to dispute the tall tales of WMD that Chalabi and others peddled. But the wild stories fit the preconceptions of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who hustled the false data to the President's desk.

The Duelfer Report confirms we were right. Give this claim high marks for chutzpah. Chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer concluded Hussein had no biochemical weapons stockpiles and no nuclear weapons program to speak of. In other words, the main rationale for war was false. Inspections and sanctions had in fact done a fair job of containment. Hussein was, in Thielmann's image: "posting a 'Beware of Dog' sign without buying the dog." Hussein bet that worries about WMD would keep Iran and the United States at bay.

A key point in Duelfer's report, which Bush seizes upon and the Michael Moore crowd glibly ignores, is that Hussein would have rebuilt weapons if sanctions had been lifted. But this did not, as Bush now claims, justify invasion. If Bush hadn't short-circuited inspections by invading, he would have learned the glad news: Iraq was a paper tiger. Then the challenge would have been maintaining a tough inspections regime while cleaning up the corrupt oil-for-food program. Not easy, but nowhere near as risky as invading and occupying an Islamic nation.

We're fighting the terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here. This claim has gained amazing currency, given that it makes no sense. Sadly, Osama bin Laden can walk and chew gum at the same time. What kind of moral thinking is that anyway? Is it really OK for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians to be sacrificed as targets in a Baghdad shooting gallery - just as long as nothing blows up in Abington?

It's dangerous to switch leaders in midwar.Let's say you're riding in a car. The driver, ignoring road signs and your warning cries, drives into oncoming traffic and crashes. Would you insist on having him drive you home from the accident site?

How can Kerry lead a war he calls a mistake? If an onlooker took charge at the scene, asking for help to clear the wreckage and avoid more accidents, others might pitch in, even if they thought the driver had been a fool.

Kerry's plan for Iraq is the same as the Bush team's. Largely true, but not because Kerry's aping the other guys. The cascading failures in Iraq have forced the Bush team to adopt policies it had mocked when others, including Kerry, proposed them.

Kerry remains too optimistic about the level of help he can extract from European allies. He'll have a hard sell. But it's possible that a new president with fresh credibility - derived from admitting U.S. errors and recognizing others' interests - might obtain some useful aid. Bush couldn't. Nor, his credibility in tatters, could he easily rouse old allies to meet a new, genuine threat.

There is no magic plan for Iraq. The choice is between a candidate who is at least clear about the stakes and problems - and a President who isn't, because he can't admit the deceits, delusions and errors that got us into this fix.

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