When American families gather to give thanks this week, all of us should say a prayer for the young men and women putting their lives at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan and serving in Bosnia and hundreds of other bases across the world. They are of all races and creeds. Some come from proud military families with generations of service. Some are new Americans, whose families have only recently come to this country. In Iraq and Afghanistan, their duty is hazardous and difficult. They deserve our thanks and respect.
They have served with courage and honor, but have been deeply misled by their leaders. They are stuck in a catastrophic occupation in Iraq. Even the political generals, like Gen. John Abizaid, who have learned to trim their views to fit the White House's needs, now say we have only ''four to six months'' before the civil war already under way spins out of control. More objective analysts say it is already out of control, with death squads murdering and kidnapping hundreds each day, ethnic cleansing taking place from the Kurdish region in the north to the Shiite areas of the south, and Baghdad a bloody gangland, with private militias splitting into rival tongs.
In the midst of this disaster, its architects are abandoning ship. The very neoconservative ideologues who lobbied for this war of choice even before Bush came to office, who wanted to invade Iraq even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are bailing out. These are the zealots who eagerly promoted exiles like Ahmed Chalabi to propagate lies about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programs. These are the pundits who filled the op-ed pages and radio and TV shows with lies about Hussein's connections with al-Qaida. They were so intent on launching this war that they were prepared to prey on American fears and mislead the country into war. It would be, as Kenneth Adelman said, a ''cakewalk.'' We would be greeted as liberators. Democracy would break out in what they painted as a secular Iraq, then sweep the region.
Now they rush to disavow any responsibility. Adelman is shocked to see that ''there are lots of lives that are lost.'' He now blames the leaders of the administration that he once adored: ''This didn't have to be managed this bad. It's just awful.'' Richard Perle, a leader of the Chalabi lobby, now says that he didn't realize the invasion would lead to an occupation. The occupation, he says, ''was a foolish thing to do.'' He apparently thought the troops could just overthrow a dictator and democracy would follow as dawn follows night. It's a problem of execution, according to Joshua Muravchik, the neocon publicist, who lays the blame on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Besides, he now writes, few neocons actually served in the Bush administration, and our ''woes in Iraq'' may be ''traced to the conduct of the war rather than the decision to undertake it.''
Now the American people have begun to understand the scope of the fiasco. They went to the polls to demand a change in course in Iraq. Bush dismissed Rumsfeld, leader of the neocons, and brought in the pros -- James Baker, Robert Gates -- from his father's administration. They, with the new Democratic leadership in the Congress, will have the impossible task of trying to extricate America, with as little damage as possible, from the mess the neocons got us into.
So the neocons are positioning themselves to blame the mess on those left to clean it up. Soon they will be filling the op-ed pages with cries of being betrayed, and with calls for a new military adventure, packaged once more with deceptions and distortions. America will have squandered priceless lives and, in the end, over one trillion dollars on their folly. But the neocons will learn nothing. They will lose nothing. The only question is whether the rest of us will know better the next time.
Our soldiers are still at risk. Many believe in their cause. Many understand the situation is out of control. They follow their orders; they put their lives on the line. They deserve our deepest thanks for their heroism. To honor them, we must not fail to hold accountable those that misled them and us into this catastrophe.
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