Mistakes make it so no one knows what chaos lies ahead

August 16, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - I sympathize with Cindy Sheehan, the California woman who wants to speak with President Bush about her son Casey, who was killed in Iraq. I also sympathize with Mr. Bush. It can't be easy to look as confident as he usually does while he's trying to get his country out of a bigger mess than he expected to get it into.

The Vacaville, Calif., Mom threw a big clod into Mr. Bush's butter churn. She set up camp with other war protesters outside the president's ranch Aug. 6 and vowed to keep her vigil until Mr. Bush meets with her and other Gold Star mothers to explain why their children had to die in Iraq and to hear her argument for quickly ending the war.

She's hardly alone. A new poll by CNN, USA Today and the Gallup organization found a third of those surveyed say the United States should withdraw all troops from Iraq. That is the highest percentage calling for a full withdrawal since Gallup began asking the question in August 2003.

Also, a majority of Americans (57 percent) now feel the war has made them "less safe" from terrorism and (54 percent) that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. Of course, if Mr. Bush could end the war quickly, he would. Hardly anybody believes he has a plan to get us out of Iraq.

I, too, would like to speak with the president. I'd like to speak with him about how it feels to live near Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Hardly a week goes by that I do not run into a young wounded GI at a local market, movie theater or 7-Eleven who is getting used to the latest technology in artificial arms and legs. Like the president, I don't want their sacrifices to be in vain.

I'd like to trade war stories with my fellow Vietnam-era veterans. Thirty-six years ago, I was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Like Mr. Bush, I never saw combat. I knew quite a few who did. I hoped that my generation had learned its lessons about getting into wars without having, as Colin Powell long advised, a clear strategy for how we were going to win. It sickens me that my generation isn't as smart as I had hoped we would be.

The president is properly worried that Iraqis are not ready to handle their own security well enough for the United States to begin leaving anytime soon. Little of the news coming out of Iraq argues with that.

So Mr. Bush had to throw cold water on the sunny optimism of Army Gen. George Casey, head of the multinational force in Iraq, who said last month that forces might be significantly reduced next spring. That would be a relief to incumbent Republicans, but Mr. Bush says no decisions had been made. We might even have to add more American troops to safeguard the Iraqi elections scheduled for December. No, the question is not whether to withdraw from Iraq, but how?

A quick withdrawal could lead to all-out civil war among Iraq's factions, which may be building anyway, and no one knows what kind of chaos or despots could emerge.

Ominously, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iran last week of allowing increasingly sophisticated IEDs, or "improvised explosive devices," and other weapons to make their way across the border to insurgents in Iraq.

Iran? Oh, yes. It's back. Iran, with its long record of sponsoring terrorism against Israel and the United States, is becoming a nuclear power and not a terribly friendly one.

That's why I'd like to ask Mr. Bush whether he got his countries mixed up. Did he really mean to invade Iran? Does he now wish that we had?

Questions like that help explain why the president's handlers steer him exclusively to friendly audiences - and why his surrogates try to challenge the patriotism of reporters and commentators who get too uppity. We all make mistakes. Team Bush just doesn't want to admit any. That's too bad. Facing up to your mistakes is the first step toward avoiding more mistakes in the future.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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