The price of deceit

January 21, 2004

THERE ARE ONLY two credible arguments to justify the war in Iraq. They are not conclusive or, in our view, persuasive, but at least they are arguments that can be taken seriously.

They are:

A muscular display of American military prowess was needed to impress upon various bad actors around the world that the United States is not to be fooled with.

American troops had become such an irritant to the Saudis that they had to be removed from the desert kingdom, but because of oil the United States could not abandon the Middle East. Iraq was the logical place to install a friendly regime.

And yet, last year's State of the Union address touched on neither. Instead, President Bush told the nation all about Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons, his effort to build a nuclear weapons program, his links to al-Qaida, and his torture of his own people. Even taken at face value, those were not appropriate justifications for war. As it turned out, though, on none of those points, except the last one, was the president accurate. His arguments were insufficient and wrong.

Last night brought another State of the Union. The president did trot out the better-not-mess-with-us argument. Here's the punchline: "No one can now doubt the word of America." This, in the same rostrum from which he enunciated bogus pretexts for war a year ago! Naturally, it brought his supporters to their feet, cheering.

Mr. Bush boasted that he had made the world a safer place, cautioned that danger still lay in wait, and called on Americans to stay the course.

Maybe, instead, the president should level with the American people.

If it's not clear what, exactly, this war was about, how can anyone know when its goals have been achieved? Clearly, there is good reason for the United States to remain engaged in Iraq, now that the country is so much in danger of disintegration. But with what means? And toward what end?

Iraq is in a mess right now, with ethnic groups warily vying for power, thousands of people demonstrating against American policy, and attacks on U.S. soldiers continuing all the while. Washington has asked the United Nations for help in fixing Iraq, though no one listening to Mr. Bush last night would have guessed that.

The Army is stretched to the breaking point, but Mr. Bush talked about fighting terror by spreading democracy from Iraq throughout the Middle East. How many troops will that take? How much conflict lies ahead? And isn't it strange to wage war against terror by attacking a country that had no links to America's terrorist foes?

"The word of America." Mr. Bush put the credibility of his nation on the line; the price of deceit, if deceit there is, will be enormous.

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