It's getting harder and harder to remain deluded. With each day comes new facts to drag our heads out of the sand.
Two weeks ago, The Times reported that four Western oil giants were on the verge of signing no-bid contracts that would return them to Iraq, the third-most bountiful petroleum playground on the planet. The deals, expected to be finalized in the next 30 days, were the kind of news that big oil lives for.
Giddy executives singing "Oh Happy Day" could be heard in the corporate offices of Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP, which had been shut out of Iraq for three and a half decades.
We also learned this week that a group of American advisers, led by a team from the State Department, played a key role in drawing up the contracts between the companies and the Iraqi government. Chevron and several smaller oil companies are also on the verge of signing contracts.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney, both former oil-company executives, have long tried to tell us this war was about terrorism, about weapons of mass destruction, about bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, about anything but oil.
Said Mr. Bush: "We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
He didn't wait. It didn't matter that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the U.S. Or that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The troops were sent into battle in early 2003 and there is still, after more than five years and more than 4,000 American deaths, no end to the war in sight.
One of the starkest examples of U.S. priorities came during the eruption of looting that followed the fall of Baghdad. With violence and chaos all about, American troops were ordered to protect one particularly treasured target - the Iraqi Oil Ministry. As David Rieff wrote in The Times Magazine in November 2003:
"This decision to protect only the Oil Ministry - not the National Museum, not the National Library, not the Health Ministry - probably did more than anything else to convince Iraqis uneasy with the occupation that the United States was in Iraq only for the oil."
How convenient that the peculiar perspective of the oil-obsessed Bush administration can now be put to use advising the Iraqi government on its contracts with big oil.
The contracts themselves are not huge. They are like the keys on a coveted ring that will begin opening the doors to Iraq's vast oil reserves. As The Times reported Monday, "At a time of spiraling oil prices, the no-bid contracts, in a country with some of the world's largest untapped fields and potential for vast profits, are a rare prize to the industry."
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A prize, yes. But at what cost?
In addition to the terrible toll of Americans and Iraqis killed and wounded, the war in Iraq has diverted attention and resources from critical problems here in the U.S., where the housing market has been crippled, the stock market has tanked, gasoline has soared past $4 per gallon, unemployment is increasing and an extraordinary number of debt-ridden working families are staring into a financial abyss.
Even as oil companies are enjoying staggering profits, many Americans - in July! - are already worried sick about the potentially ruinous cost of heating their homes next winter.
And then there's the so-called war on terror.
The latest news is that Al Qaeda, the terror network that actually did attack the U.S., has successfully regrouped in the tribal areas of Pakistan and has reconstituted its ability to institute terror attacks from the region.
For an administration joined at the hip to the oil industry, the lure of Iraq's enormous reserves was stronger even than the impulse to conquer an enemy that murdered more than 2,700 civilians on Sept. 11, a toll greater than the number of Americans killed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.
Referring to Al Qaeda members who regrouped in Pakistan, The Times reported on Monday:
"Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas. When American military and intelligence officials requested additional Predator drones to survey the tribal areas, they were told no drones were available because they had been sent to Iraq."
Who knows how long it will be before the U.S. disengages in any significant way from Iraq. What you can take to the bank is that this country will not make any major advances in energy policy, in health coverage, in rebuilding its infrastructure, in improving its public schools or in curtailing runaway public and private debt until our open-ended commitment to this catastrophic multitrillion-dollar war comes to an end.
How long will it take before that finally sinks in?
Bob Herbert joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in 1993. His column comments on politics, urban affairs and social trends.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company