Introducing the fourth year of his war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush this week allowed the first small shards of reality to intrude into the official line.
While the official position still is that surviving Iraqis are much better off than they were before the invasion in March 2003, Bush acknowledged some needless suffering caused by his administration’s conduct of the war. Iraqi fighters were left behind to torment people while the U.S. military rushed to Baghdad to celebrate the hasty and economical victory promised by the administration. The president did not mention the name of the man who overruled the field commanders and ordered that done, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the author of countless other blunders in the war, or chide him for it.
Polls having shown that two-thirds of Americans now do not trust him to tell the truth, the president wanted badly this week to be recognized for having been blunt and candid about the war and the mistakes, and the country perhaps should give him credit for a tiny bit of honesty. It could lead to more, and enough honesty could lead to a soul-searching realization of what he and his men have wrought.
But don’t get your hopes up. Lest anyone believe the administration was going soft, Vice President Cheney was on the TV shows over the weekend reinforcing the official story: The war is going beautifully, a good deal of Iraq is now secured by Iraqi forces, and progress in the Iraqi society is marching. The problem, he said, is that the media want to report on car bombings, assassinations and slaughter in the streets while ignoring all the wonderful things going on with Iraqis, like ... ?
The president repeated that case several times Monday in his televised forum with supporters at Cleveland. The only real problem facing the country, it turns out, is reporters who only tell the world the relentless bad news from Iraq.
Cheney said the only course for patriotic people is to pursue the war to final victory, however long and at whatever cost it takes because our future depends upon it. Final victory in Iraq, Cheney declared, will be “the foundation for lasting peace.”
That is the fundamental illusion of the administration. It is a fantasy that Rumsfeld, Cheney and others from the New American Century have promoted since the days that George W. Bush was campaigning against the “nation-building” schemes of Bill Clinton. If a Middle Eastern government, preferably Iraq, could be overthrown and an American-style secular democracy imposed, the stampede for democratic governments would be on throughout the region and the West would no longer have to worry about militant Islam.
But what has gun-barrel democratization produced so far besides swelling a few thousand scattered militants in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan into millions? It has radicalized the budding democracies of Palestine and Iran, where anti-Western extremists who were small minorities three years ago have taken power in landslides. The rage threatens to one day engulf the friendly dictators of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, a result none of the democratic hawks really wants to see.
At some level, Bush must dimly realize the terrible miscalculations that Cheney and Rumsfeld led him to. We now know from the archives that Lyndon Johnson knew soon after the Gulf of Tonkin and wanted to escape the realities of Vietnam, but he could not do it.
Bush must sleep with the same vision. Were he somehow to acknowledge it now, Bush would implicitly have to tell the sons, daughters, spouses and parents of all the brave soldiers who died and those who entered the war one person and emerged quite another that all their sacrifice was so that one small Middle Eastern country could be governed by murderous Shiites rather than the brutal but secular Baath Party.
The reality is that the American presence, high-minded though it is, is the impetus for much of the insurgency just as Middle East experts warned three years that it would be. And the only remedy and the best shot for stable democratic government in Iraq is for them to leave altogether — and claim victory if they like.
Few Democrats — Bill Clinton noticeably not among them — have the courage to say so. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the old cold war adviser to Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, has the way: Arrange diplomatically for the Shiite-led government to invite the United States to leave (a stronger word than invite would better show that it is not a puppet regime), and then do it orderly and honorably. Iraq could convene Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to guarantee security for the elected majority Shiite regime, which is in their vital interest to do.
The other road, the one more traveled by, is to slog through at bitter cost to the end, for Bush in January 2009, and pray that the future flouts all the existing signs and currents of history and that the paradise he and Cheney tout for the Middle East comes miraculously about.