“In this place where valor sleeps, we are reminded why America has always gone to war reluctantly, because we know the costs of war.” That’s what President Bush said last year, in a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Those were fine words, spoken by a man with less right to say them than any president in our nation’s history. For Mr. Bush took us to war not with reluctance, but with unseemly eagerness.
Now that war has turned into an epic disaster, in part because the war’s architects, whom we now know were warned about the risks, didn’t want to hear about them. Yet Congress seems powerless to stop it. How did it all go so wrong?
Future historians will shake their heads over how easily America was misled into war. The warning signs, the indications that we had a rogue administration determined to use 9/11 as an excuse for war, were there, for those willing to see them, right from the beginning — even before Mr. Bush began explicitly pushing for war with Iraq.
In fact, the very first time Mr. Bush declared a war on terror that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” people should have realized that he was going to use the terrorist attack to justify anything and everything.
When he used his first post-attack State of the Union to denounce an “axis of evil” consisting of three countries that had nothing to do either with 9/11 or with each other, alarm bells should have gone off.
But the nation, brought together in grief and anger over the attack, wanted to trust the man occupying the White House. And so it took a long time before Americans were willing to admit to themselves just how thoroughly their trust had been betrayed.
It’s a terrible story, yet it’s also understandable. I wasn’t really surprised by Republican election victories in 2002 and 2004: nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how bad the leaders and no matter how poorly conceived the war.
The question was whether the public would ever catch on. Well, to the immense relief of those who spent years trying to get the truth out, they did. Last November Americans voted overwhelmingly to bring an end to Mr. Bush’s war.
Yet the war goes on.
To keep the war going, the administration has brought the original bogyman back out of the closet. At first, Mr. Bush said he would bring Osama bin Laden in, dead or alive. Within seven months after 9/11, however, he had lost interest: “I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure,” he said in March 2002. “I truly am not that concerned about him.”
In all of 2003, Mr. Bush, who had an unrelated war to sell, made public mention of the man behind 9/11 only seven times.
But Osama is back: last week Mr. Bush invoked his name 11 times in a single speech, warning that if we leave Iraq, Al Qaeda — which wasn’t there when we went in — will be the winner. And Democrats, still fearing that they will end up accused of being weak on terror and not supporting the troops, gave Mr. Bush another year’s war funding.
Democratic Party activists were furious, because polls show a public utterly disillusioned with Mr. Bush and anxious to see the war ended. But it’s not clear that the leadership was wrong to be cautious. The truth is that the nightmare of the Bush years won’t really be over until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn’t happened yet.
Here’s the way it ought to be: When Rudy Giuliani says that Iran, which had nothing to do with 9/11, is part of a “movement” that “has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he should be treated as a lunatic.
When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.
And when John McCain says that Osama, who isn’t in Iraq, will “follow us home” if we leave, he should be laughed at.
But they aren’t, at least not yet. And until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves, men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people’s children to graves at Arlington.