I recently returned from a lengthy trip to Europe, where I had extended conversations with strangers from several countries. Although I didn't experience any hostility toward Americans per se, opinions about U.S. behavior around the globe revealed uniform skepticism regarding Washington's stated motives.
For example, in Amsterdam and Barcelona, I met taxi drivers, construction workers and students ordinary people from all walks of life. When you travel, it's easy to fall into conversation. They all were eager to talk to an American, but I couldn't answer to anyone's satisfaction including my own a question that I'll phrase thusly: Given that the weapons of mass destruction rationale for invading Iraq has been shown to be the biggest intelligence hoax in recent history, why aren't Americans more outraged and holding the Bush administration accountable for its pattern of lies, deception and deceit?
My response was along these lines: Those with a vested interest in the status quo are trying to distract us, revising recent history, or engaging in a cover-up. That's to be expected. But what about the vast majority?
First, the government and media propaganda campaign has played a significant role in leaving people in the dark. That is, very few Americans are aware of what's happened because it's far from common knowledge. As syndicated columnist Jules Witcover notes, ''President Bush still benefits from the surge of patriotism that followed the diabolical attack on Sept 11., 2001. Even though no evidence links 9-11 to Mr. Hussein.
''Mr. Bush and his strategists have deftly created a broad impression that taking down the Iraqi regime was part and parcel of the war on terrorism declared right after 9-11.'' (Baltimore Sun, June 18).
Second, I suspect that part of the answer is a natural psychological need to trust our government officials, even to the point of filtering out uncomfortable truths about the actual motives for invading Iraq. It's my sense that, at least for the short term, it's just too painful to admit that we could be so gullible, so bamboozled by our government again.
Third, it may seem disloyal to the women and men in the armed forces to concede that they were placed in harm's way for fraudulent reasons. It's not easy to acknowledge that our troops who volunteered to defend our country have been transformed into occupiers and are being killed and injured on a daily basis for the selfish ends of a few.
Americans fervently want to believe that the disruption, death and injuries were visited on Iraq for some higher purpose. But in truth, this was not the case. As Sen. Robert Byrd, D-Va., declared on June 24, ''For the first time in our history, the United States has gone to war because of intelligence reports claiming that a country posed a threat to our nation.
And yet, seven weeks after declaring victory in the war against Iraq, we have seen nary a shred of evidence to support claims of grave dangers, chemical weapons, links to al- Qaida, or nuclear weapons.''
If this is plausible, then isn't the best way to ''support our troops'' to bring them home? Iraq was not their war. Do we really want them perceived as a hated neo-colonial force in Iraq? If it's now obvious that the ''war'' was sold to us under brazenly false pretenses, must we compound that initial deception by keeping our troops there and watching them be picked off, one by one?
Since the ''Fall of Baghdad'' on April 9, some 93 American soldiers have died in Iraq in what looks increasingly like a guerrilla war. Is anyone else out there experiencing the chilling deja vu of Vietnam? I can almost hear Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news, intoning updates on the daily tally of American losses in that war.
I know too many Vietnam vets who live with the knowledge that their participation in that war served no purpose. Eventually, Robert McNamara, one of the war's architects, wrote in his memoirs that it was all a terrible mistake and a tragedy. Some consolation. Had we ''supported our troops'' by changing U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s, 58,220 names wouldn't be on that wall in Washington, D.C., and 2.5 million Vietnamese would not have died.
Today, the most conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from 7,000 to 10,000 and there's no end in sight. Some polls suggest that Americans just don't care and are indifferent to the truth. Again, I prefer to believe that media-induced public ignorance is operating here.
I asked my European skeptics not to sell our people short and predicted that in the near future the basic decency and common sense of the American people will come to the fore. At that point our citizens will begin asking some basic questions: ''Why did we invade Iraq? Why are we still there ?''
There is no little urgency in arriving at this point. Bush's advisers may have already decided that he needs one more ''pre-emptive war'' to carry him to victory in the 2004 election. Should that occur, any number of foreign military adventures lie ahead, leaving us in even more dangerous circumstances at home and abroad.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chairman of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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