That the Bush administration deceived and misled the nation in launching its war in Iraq is well documented. Iraq's weapons, its threat to America, its connections to al-Qaeda, its influence on regional conflicts were all distorted and exaggerated.
These distortions – plus administration bluster about "cakewalks" and "mission accomplished" – have now come back to bite. The nation is on a course headed for the rocks, and shameless comments such as "America will never run," from a president who was an artful dodger of another misguided war, don't help.
History will judge Bush for his mistakes, but the issue before us today is practical, not historical. We find ourselves in an increasingly precarious situation, one even the administration no longer can deny.
Its message has begun to change. From a cakewalk, Iraq has become, "a long hard war," says Donald Rumsfeld. "We're going to have tragic days, but they're necessary, part of a war that is difficult and complicated."
The Bush message has a second part to it: The rocks may lie straight ahead, but there will be no changing of course. The administration has met no metaphor for retreat it hasn't employed in refusing to consider an exit strategy from Iraq. A partial list:
Quitting, turning tail, cutting and running, bugging out, going soft, leaving the job undone, challenging America's will, retreating, never running.
Such bluster compounds the initial mistake. An honorable exit strategy is exactly what is needed for Iraq.
The name "Vietnam" is heard today because of growing evidence that America's occupation of Iraq is unwelcome, both to Americans and Iraqis. The longer it lasts the more unwelcome it will become, which is why an exit strategy is vitally needed.
In his drumbeat of no-retreat metaphors, Bush ignores an important reality about war: They're not all the same. It meant something to say America would not retreat at Bunker Hill, the Marne or Normandy. It means nothing to say America will not retreat from the illegal occupation of Iraq.
In unnecessary wars, bad wars, wars of aggression, retreat can be the best course. Israel withdrew from Lebanon precisely because its occupation wasn't working. It took a military man, Ehud Barak, to understand the value of retreat from Lebanon.
This administration has no respect for history. We've seen this in its national security strategy, which accords America, unique among nations, the right to launch pre-emptive war when it chooses. That policy, known as the Bush Doctrine, was the rationalization for war with Iraq.
The administration never understood the practical consequences of pre-emptive war: How it would isolate us from friends and weaken alliances, divorce us from international law and codes of conduct, undermine America's moral authority, which for most of the past century was unassailable.
Insidiously, the Bush Doctrine confused national security strategy with private agendas. Seizing on the Sept. 11 attacks as justification and using Bush, the blank slate president, as vehicle, the administration's neoconservative warhawks defined their "evil empire" and put Iraq at the head of it.
The human, moral and economic costs of invasion, occupation and subjugation of this ancient nation were never part of the neoconservative calculation. Taking Iraq was their neat idea. If it didn't turn out to be a cakewalk, Bush could always stiffen spines with speeches about never retreating.
There were dissenters, foremost among them people who knew Iraq best. Neoconservatives were countered by State Department and CIA experts, academics and policy-makers from the first Bush and Clinton administrations, people who knew Iraq's history and the nature of its people.
A leading skeptic was Colin Powell, who in his memoirs explained that the first Bush administration declined to invade and occupy Baghdad in 1991 because an American "proconsulship" would not work. Q.E.D.
With his views formed in Vietnam, Powell knew about quagmires. When war became a certainty under Bush II, Powell's State Department undertook the Future of Iraq Project to assess postwar possibilities. That report, and another by the CIA, concluded that chances of implanting democracy in Iraq were low. Both reports were ignored by Pentagon neoconservatives (as were Iraq's peace-feelers), who knew nothing about Iraq, but who were put in charge of it.
Among analysts, no one has done better work on Iraq than Toby Dodge, English author of the just-published "Inventing Iraq," which recounts the British occupation of Iraq in 1920-32 and ties it to present events.
"The United States in Iraq today," Dodge writes, "must understand that it is both living with the consequences of (Britain's) failure and in danger of repeating it."
Just as Iraqis, Dodge says, defeated the British through "violence and political mobilization," they are prepared to bleed Americans to death today. There are forces at work that care little about Bush's rhetorical machismo.
We must learn from history.
© Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.