The buck is stopping

November 20, 2005

Faced with the realization that most Americans now think he misled the nation into going to war in Iraq, President Bush has been fiercely lashing out at his critics. They supported the war against Saddam Hussein, too, he says, and now they have the nerve to blame Mr. Bush for it, and even accuse him of lying, just because it has gone so badly.

There's a small grain of truth in what he says. Many Democrats did vote for the war-powers resolution in the fall of 2002 - though they should have known better. It's inconceivable, moreover, that Mr. Bush would have latched on to the weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war if he had known they didn't exist. He was, clearly, a captive of his own false assumptions.

But there was a larger deception at work on the eve of the war, and on this level there's no escaping the fact that the president misled the American people. He said the issue was illegal Iraqi weaponry when it is clear in retrospect that this was simply a handy justification for a war that he wanted. It was Mr. Bush and his allies who elevated Iraq to a crisis, and who pounded away, again and again, at the urgency of meeting a threat that, by any objective measure, was no greater in 2002 or 2003 than it had been the year before or two years or five years before.

The president in Cincinnati, on Oct. 7, 2002: "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group. ... We have every reason to assume the worst, and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring."

Vice President Dick Cheney, in Nashville, on Aug. 26, 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."

The president in Washington, on Jan. 28, 2003: "With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region."

So war it was.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the self-styled "war president" is that he was so certain of the rightness of his course he must have felt safe in disregarding the abundant intelligence and analysis that cast doubt upon his plans. If he misled the nation, perhaps he also misled himself.

Today, Americans are paying for that deception. Two or three U.S. soldiers are killed every day. Iraqis are bombing, shooting, executing, mutilating and torturing each other. (Mr. Cheney said, in that 2002 speech, "The streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy.") Baghdad is heading for a crack-up. Rep. John P. Murtha, a Marine veteran from Pennsylvania, says it's time to get out because no good is being served by staying - and it's hard to find the flaw in his logic. The president is furious, because he can't allow himself to face up to the deceit that launched a war.

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