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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

17 years of distorted reality

President Bush’s attempts at defending the Iraq war as it reached its fifth anniversary in mid-March were as irresponsible as the reasons he advanced for getting the United States involved in this sorry and costly misadventure.

His defense is inane because his assertions that “successes are undeniable” and that the United States is on the verge of winning something in Iraq lack any sense or logic. Unfortunately, his latest words constitute but one more chapter in the dissembling that began shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and allowed the administration to falsely link Iraq to the attacks, to make preposterous claims about its weapons of mass destruction and to wildly inflate its threat to the United States.

His words are irresponsible because they promise things -- victory and nobility and peace -- that are unrealistic, if not impossible to achieve. As delusional as the president’s assertions are, they reflect a pattern that precedes the excesses of the current administration. It is important to track the pattern, to comprehend the depth of deception that has kept the United States on a hostile footing with Iraq for more than a decade and a half and in a hot war for the past five years. The effects of what has gone on in Iraq spill well beyond its borders and raise deeply disturbing questions about who we say we are as Americans.

Most of the talk in this political year will be of troop levels and vague plans for getting out or staying in. Essential as that debate may be, far more remains at stake.

* * *

In 1991 when the senior President Bush decided to invade Iraq, there was little talk about the need to unseat Saddam Hussein or even about his record as a bloody tyrant. Unsavory truths aside, our primary concern was access to oil and protecting Kuwait’s oil supply. If oil had not been involved, we would not have been involved. That has been the major theme in the story of U.S. interest in the Middle East since the early 20th century.

We have used this page in the past to recite this history and do so once again because it is the essential part of the conversation that is continually left behind. Without this context the picture becomes a terribly distorted and narrow tale of a desert struggle to impose democracy.

Oil was the reason the United States overthrew the democratically elected president of Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, in the mid-1950s. It was the reason we installed the shah of Iran as that country’s ruler, though he was a bloody tyrant who tortured and terrorized his own people.

Oil and access to it were behind U.S. support of Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war with Iran during the 1980s, a period during which the United States amply armed the dictator.

Controlling access to oil was behind the crushing sanctions placed on Iraq for most of the 1990s -- the most severe in human history, as we boasted at the time. The sanctions, according to a United Nations report, were directly responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5.

The words of Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and later President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, are worth remembering because they are so chilling. Asked by a reporter whether the effort in Iraq was worth the deaths of that many children, Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

Clinton himself thought that our elusive aims in Iraq were worth near constant bombardment by U.S. planes in no-fly zones that had been established in northern and southern segments of the country. By that time, of course, the country’s electrical grids and water systems had been destroyed.

* * *

The point is that the past five years represents less than a third of the period during which the United States has been waging war against Iraq. The chattering TV heads that provide most Americans with their “news” have little time for this kind of history. It doesn’t fit into sound bite formats and is jarring to preconceived notions of America as a generous, neutral agent of democratic change in the world.

It is far easier to boil it all down to story lines of good versus evil, winning versus losing, patriots versus traitors.

The reality is that through acting precipitously we have come, once again, to a shocking realization of the limits of military force and entangled ourselves in a quagmire that defies short-term resolution.

It is reasonable to suggest that the deception and disregard for world opinion that led us to the latest phase of war in Iraq opened the door for other deceptions. So we created the prison without end at Guantánamo; suspended habeas corpus; committed torture that was justified by those at the highest levels of the justice and executive branches; secretly spied without warrant on U.S. citizens; and engaged in rendition, a way of sending suspects to secret prisons in a third country where they were tortured.

No one should doubt the worldwide threat of terrorism. In the same way, everyone should understand the consequences of the Bush administration’s approach. We are losing ourselves, becoming the enemy we detest. What’s missing is the truth and wisdom, the statecraft and patience, the broad global consensus over strategy and means that are necessary for success.

Our country’s best hope is that the next administration, whoever replaces the current occupant of the White House, will have the wisdom to enlist those groups previously kept on the periphery. They include members of the military, justice and diplomatic communities who have well reasoned and deep opposition to the current course of the war on terrorism.

Getting out of Iraq will be an important step in righting the ship of state. Dealing with the damage that’s been done to the nation’s soul is an even more important task.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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