|Evil was demoted in the president's panoply of ills this week, and that's a good thing. President George W. Bush mentioned the word only once Tuesday night - as in "Saddam Hussein's evil regime," now vanquished. |
That compares with five "evils" in his seminal "axis of evil" State of the Union speech two years ago, and four last year, when Iran and North Korea were demoted from "grave and growing danger" to a lesser subset of rogue states that can be handled short of war.
Yet the cavalier shifts in a matter so important to how America does business abroad are deeply troubling. Did our nation choose aright in expanding the war on terror to preventive war against a regime dabbling with weapons of mass destruction but far from such capability? On that critical question, there was silence from the commander in chief.
In fact, all three of Bush's State of the Union speeches have omitted the grays, the uncertainties and the fine print. Yet on this shaky basis, the United States defined a new evil and a new enemy, and went to war against a nation that not only never attacked us, but was once our ally - and whose ruler had honed his mass-murder expertise in part with our assistance.
Tuesday night, President Bush recast the Iraq war as a "liberation."
Last year at this time, he was selling it as a national security mission critical to U.S. safety.
He made this switch unapologetically, without explanation, seemingly oblivious to how such a re-spin harms U.S. credibility abroad or how it cheapens the new concepts of alliance, national defense and just war that underlay the Iraq attack.
Nor can any amount of patriotic bunting hide the fact that we still have to convince the Iraqis we've liberated them, and secure their nation from the new threats arising from our decision to remove Saddam by force. Those threats include civil war, al-Qaida infiltrators, Kurdish independence aspirations and a territorial grab by neighbors.
But more is afoot than that. This is the third wartime State of the Union from Bush that degrades the power of public scrutiny and debate by the use of grand rhetoric to hide hollow facts.
Given the potential of the "pre-emptive" war doctrine and its corollary, occupation, to harm long-term U.S. interests, sap our treasury and demoralize our military forces, such a national dialogue is overdue. The president wrongly short-circuits that process at a critical moment.
Last year, Bush prepared the nation for war with Iraq by omitting from his State of the Union all of the ifs and buts, and even the time frames. The Iraq of 2003 was made out to be comparable to the Iraq of 1988, when Saddam gassed thousands of his own citizens while the United States looked the other way. An Iraq weakened by a dozen years of U.N. sanctions and more than six years of intense weapons-inspection scrutiny was made out to be the earlier Iraq secretly shopping for biowar, nuclear and chemical weapons know-how.
The U.S. role in Saddam's weapons acquisitions was never mentioned. Yet when U.N. weapons inspectors busted up Saddam's nuclear program in the early 1990s, they found one uranium enrichment plant built to the precise design of a previously discarded U.S. weapons-lab blueprint. An Iraqi scientist apparently found it in the lab's declassified files, and brought it home with him.
An Iraqi microbiologist who trained at the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1985 openly carried bio-bugs back with him, including denatured plague strains and the West Nile virus.
The Iraqi people remember the United States' one-time complicity in Saddam's evil; it complicates our efforts to win them over. So we shouldn't forget it, either.
But more than that, "evil" is not a concept to be bandied about like a schoolyard taunt when an excuse for war is needed, then tossed onto the trash when that war goes awry. The president must tell the nation why such a devaluation occurred, and go back to the beginning to explain what was so "evil" about Saddam that set him apart from other evil dictators the United States now feels it can manage. Lacking such a context, the war can never truly be won, because its underpinnings always will remain suspect.