Another day, another rationale for Iraq war

November 12, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush, in his shifting rationales for the war in Iraq, is now justifying it with a grand vision of extending democracy throughout the Middle East and beyond.

He laid it out in his speech here the other day characterizing the American occupation as the beginning of what will be "a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

In the process, the president compared his pre-emptive war to the fights against the Kaiser in World War I, against Hitler and Hirohito in World War II, and against the Soviet Union and communism in the Cold War. As he put it, it's all part of the noble mission of freeing "oppressed people until the day of liberation and freedom finally arrives."

That was certainly a quantum leap from the simple justification on which he sold the Iraq invasion to the American people. Then the war's rationale was stated as the need to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that supposedly imperiled the United States and others.

An accompanying rationale for immediate military action was to bring about "regime change" in Iraq by removing Saddam Hussein, seen as the embodiment of that threat and a cruel dictator who inflicted unspeakable horrors on his own people and neighbors.

When neither of these was persuasive enough to win a more specific resolution of support from the U.N. Security Council, the United States and Mr. Bush's limited "coalition of the willing" swiftly achieved the "regime change" part with Mr. Bush's military "shock and awe" invasion.

Few contended before or after that getting rid of Mr. Hussein was not a welcome outcome. But debate continued about whether that goal had been a sufficient reason to launch a pre-emptive war if the threat from him was not immediate and real.

That's why the failure so far to turn up the alleged weapons of mass destruction or the ability to deliver them has continued to haunt the Bush administration, especially as the aftermath of the invasion has proved to be so perilous and costly in American lives.

That fact explains the recent public relations push by the administration to counter public doubts about the stated imperative of the invasion, the CIA intelligence on which it was based and how that intelligence was used by President Bush and others to sell the war to the American people.

The president's speech was only the latest effort to put the most defensible face on a war whose necessity remains seriously challenged, for which financial support has been granted grudgingly by Congress and both military and financial aid flatly refused by most other major nations.

The question now is whether American voters who were led to believe that the invasion of Iraq was a matter of our national security will accept Mr. Bush's latest characterization of the war as part of a long-range mission to democratize the Middle East.

In his speech, Mr. Bush did not hesitate to cast his Iraq adventure in the starkest of terms. "The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world," he said, "and increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region."

The clichM-i of the month here is that Iraq is not Vietnam, and in many ways it is not. The American involvement in Vietnam was in direct response to requests for aid from an ally attempting to repel an invasion, which certainly is not the case in Iraq.

But the drip-drop of American deaths and casualties in Iraq is not unlike what happened in the early stages of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, which in time became a political nightmare for Lyndon B. Johnson. If American voters do continue to support the war in Iraq, it more likely will be out of their commitment to our troops there than to a moral crusade only now offered as the latest reason for present and future sacrifices.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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