Conservatives believe they know the best way to honor the sacrifices of our troops in Iraq: We must all pretend that the war is going fine, that progress is proceeding according to plan, that the insurgency is soon to be routed, and that victory is somewhere just over the horizon.
When things momentarily went well last winter during the Iraqi elections, we were urged to proclaim an imminent triumph-just as the right-wing pundits and politicians did so deliriously back then. When things began to deteriorate again with the recent upsurge in bombings and attacks, we were told to ignore the bad news-as those same pundits and politicians are doing so quietly now.
Although the ongoing carnage in Iraq no longer gets the headlines reserved for exhibitionist celebrities, even the flickering attention paid to death’s daily drumbeat is too much for certain war enthusiasts. A conservative columnist for The New York Times has suggested that the media simply cease coverage of suicide bombings. This was a strange proposal from someone working for one of the world’s most important news organizations, but one that aptly reflected current attitudes in the White House, the Defense Department and much of official Washington.
Both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney evidently believe their own uplifting rhetoric and brusque dismissals of criticism. They won’t let reality-based analysis intrude on their faith-based perspective.
At his latest press conference, Mr. Bush said he thinks the new Iraqi government “will be up to the task of defeating the insurgents.” He harked back to the elections and said he was “heartened” to learn that there are now “40,000 Iraqi troops” sufficiently well trained to protect Baghdad. (In fact, our own commanders place little credence in that encouraging statistic.) To Mr. Bush, every devastating attack merely serves as further proof that the insurgents are “desperate.”
Mr. Cheney takes the same optimistic approach, explaining that in his estimation, bad news is really good news. He told CNN interviewer Larry King that he perceives “major progress” in Iraq, where “they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.” He didn’t seem to realize that he contradicted that remark when he then predicted that the war might conclude before 2009, the end of the President’s second term, although his general assessment remained vague. “I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time,” he said.
How that “presence” will serve American interests remains as vague as Mr. Cheney’s timetable. In the meantime, it is worth noting that the Bush administration’s predictions have proven considerably less reliable than those of the war’s opponents. That observation goes beyond the absence of “weapons of mass destruction” or the enormous human and financial costs of what was supposed to be a cheap, easy cakewalk.
Many months ago, C.I.A. analysts indicated that bitter conflicts among Iraq’s competing ethnic and religious groups were driving the country toward civil war. At the time, Mr. Bush brushed aside such warnings as mere static from habitual critics. Yet now we can see that the car bombings, partisan assassinations and sectarian massacres are vindicating that grim assessment.
The cities and villages beset by the insurgency have become training camps for militant Islamists, the future cadre of the next terrorist movement. As Joshua Micah Marshall noted, the Iraqi killing fields are creating new terrorists, just as the bloody civil war in Afghanistan encouraged the rise of Al Qaeda.
The war’s advocates once suggested that Iraq would serve as “flypaper” for those terrorists, gathering them all in one place where our superior firepower and tactics could decimate them. “America will be safer in the long run when Iraq, and Afghanistan as well, are no longer safe havens for terrorists or places where people can gather and plan and organize attacks against the United States,” insists Mr. Cheney.
But according to The Washington Post, Bush administration counterterrorism officials now anticipate the “bleeding out” of “hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadists back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe.”
So while the President may tell us that the terrorists are being vanquished in Iraq, his own officials know better. The American people seem to be realizing that their initial support for the war was misplaced. Over the past month, polls have consistently showed decreasing confidence in the way Mr. Bush has conducted the war and diminishing confidence that the price in lives and treasure was justified.
By substantial margins, most Americans no longer approve of administration policy in Iraq, no longer think the war was worth its costs, and no longer feel certain that this misadventure will end happily. Very few are willing to say that we are losing the war, but even fewer agree with the President that things are going very well.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bush doesn’t seem to realize that he cannot wave away those misgivings-and that he may already have foreclosed an orderly and honorable conclusion to this war during his Presidency.