AUSTIN, Texas - As one on the liberal side of the chorus of moaners about the decline of civility in politics, I feel a certain responsibility when earnest, spaniel-eyed conservatives like David Brooks peer at us hopefully and say, "Well, yes, there was certainly a lot of misinformation about WMD before the war in Iraq, but ... you don't think they, he, actually lied do you?"
Draw I deep the breath of patience. I factor in the long and awful history of politics and truth, add the immutable nature of pols — fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly — and compare Tonkin Gulf, Watergate and Iran-Contra with the piddly Curveball and Niger uranium. I prepare to respond like a reasonable person — "Of course not actually lie, per se, in the strict sense" — and then I listen to another speech about Iraq by either the president or the vice president and find myself screaming, "Dammit, when will they quit lying?"
Civility is fine. On the other hand, sanity has its claims, as well.
I have been listening with great attention to the series of speeches President Bush has lately given on his newly revealed "Plan for Victory." Of course I was pleased to learn we have a plan for a victory, which consists, it turns out, of announcing: "We cannot and will not leave Iraq until victory is achieved. ... We will settle for nothing less than complete victory."
Unfortunately, the White House claims it produced this once supposedly secret plan in 2003, when it is actually a public-relations paper written less than six months ago, which is pretty much the way things go credibility-wise these days. It has long been clear that this administration thinks it can spin reality to a blue-bellied fare-thee-well, but isn't it a tad late for this?
Of course, it's an awkward time to be a doom-and-gloomer, too. Who wants to remind everyone this isn't working just when all those brave Iraqis just risked their lives to vote again? Democracy is a grand thing. Unfortunately, a vote has never yet created an operative military brigade.
Bush claimed in his Naval Academy speech that 80 Iraqi army and police battalions are fighting alongside American units, while another 40 are taking the lead in fighting. But last summer, military leaders told Congress that three of the 115 Iraqi battalions are capable of fighting without U.S. help, and in October Gen. George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, lowered that to one.
Of course all Texans are raised on the "Never retreat, never surrender" model, but it does ring just a little hollow when the administration's own plans for a draw-down of troops are dominating the news.
So as not to completely abandon my colleagues still yearning for civility, I point out that Bush and even Cheney are making progress. For one thing, they now acknowledge reconstruction is not going entirely smoothly, a refreshing degree of candor.
Also, Bush now acknowledges we are fighting more than just terrorists. In fact, most of the people we're fighting are themselves Iraqis who don't like us being there. The fact that their government has asked us to leave is still politely passed over. This has already cost us $277 billion, with at least another $100 billion to come.
It does seem a little silly, though, to call for "complete victory" without acknowledging that the war itself is not going well. The number of attacks on American and Iraqi troops per day grows steadily worse. Rep. Jack Murtha, who is very close to the military, says insurgent incidents over the past year have increased from 150 per week to over 700 per week.
Bush's claims on reconstruction are likewise mind-boggling. It's not "fits and starts" — there are rampant overcharges, corruption, lack of oversight — it is a zoo. At least $8 billion the United States provided Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority is unaccounted for, and Halliburton alone has already been accused of $1.4 billion in unreasonable and unsupported charges.
One night in mid-September, George W. stood in New Orleans' Jackson Square, with the floodlit facade of St. Louis Cathedral in the background. He promised help for housing, education and job training: "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. ... And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."
Hey, you know, another mission accomplished.