WAS WAR with Iraq worth it? Even politicians opposed to the Iraq war from the start have a tough time answering the question with an unconditional no.
It was Tim Russert's first question to Senator Edward M. Kennedy during the senator's recent appearance on "Meet the Press." Kennedy, who voted against the resolution authorizing war with Iraq, dodged the query the first time it was posed directly to him, as well as every variation thereafter.
"You say, Senator, 'This thing was a fraud.' Do you believe that 573 Americans gave their lives for a fraud?" Russert probed ever more dramatically later in the interview.
"Absolutely not," replied Kennedy, who went on to talk about walking past the memorial honoring soldiers who died in Vietnam and later referred to excerpts of letters from soldiers, now dead, printed in Sunday's New York Times.
Oh, those letters. They make a reader realize the emptiness of endless punditry. Up against the real war in Iraq, the war of words at home is nothing but a petulant fight for power.
It is excruciatingly sad to read the words of young men and women alive with plans, goals, and love one moment, dead the next. It would be sadder still to conclude that they died for nothing but a president's obsession, Congress's unwillingness to challenge him, and a country's collective ego.
That is a large part of America's dilemma now. Even people opposed to the war from the start, who believe that the Bush administration led the country to war under false pretenses and Congress went along out of political cowardice, do not want to conclude that the war we fought and continue to fight has zero value. The country is rooting for something it could label a happy ending, with the grim knowledge that Baghdad is no Disney World.
Without weapons of mass destruction anywhere to be found in Iraq or a pre-9/11 link to Al Qaeda, we are all left to grope for reasons, arguments, and hypotheses that explain why Americans are dying there:
Iraq is a better place without Saddam Hussein. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. If Iraq embraces democracy and if a democratic Iraq somehow stabilizes the Middle East and oil prices, then the current disdain toward the United States from other parts of the world will be irrelevant. If this war somehow makes the world safer and more peaceful, then the families of those dead American soldiers could bring that knowledge along with their tears to their loved one's grave: You died for Iraqi freedom and world peace.
On and on goes the national rationalizing, interrupted by car bombs that blow up lives and buildings in Iraq, a horrendous act of terrorism in Madrid, new fighting and political assassination in Afghanistan, and an Israeli strike that kills the founder of the militant group Hamas. Day by day the world feels less secure, not more secure. Should Americans go by the violent events of the moment or try to project beyond the latest deadly news to the promised land of the Bush administration's fantasies?
The cost in lives and dollars is large and growing. Bush's deceptions and Congress's weakness in challenging them add up to another cost -- to democracy. Kennedy knows both contributed to the current mess. But he is committed to the presidential campaign of his fellow Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who supported the war resolution. So he cannot publicly divvy up responsibility between the executive and legislative branches and stretch it where it belongs, across party lines. He can only continue to practice what passes for political debate in this country: pointing the finger of blame at one party, ignoring the lack of spine in his own party.
Was war with Iraq worth it? Even politicians like Kennedy, who voted against the war, have a difficult time saying no. They are afraid such a direct response will be interpreted to mean that Americans died and are dying there for no good reason. That is not a message any political leader of either political party cares to send to Americans, especially to American soldiers and their families.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.