Stifling criticism does nothing to help soldiers

November 25, 2005|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

"One might also argue," said Vice President Dick Cheney Tuesday, "that untruthful charges against the commander-in-chief have an insidious effect on the war effort."

That would certainly be an ugly and demagogic argument, were one to make it. After all, if untruthful charges against the president hurt the war effort (by undermining public support and soldiers' morale), then those charges will hurt the war effort even more if they happen to be true. So one would be saying, in effect, that any criticism of the president is, essentially, treason.

Mr. Cheney generously granted critics the right to criticize, as did the president this week. Then he resumed hurling adjectives like an ape hurling coconuts at unwanted visitors. "Dishonest." "Reprehensible." "Corrupt."

"Shameless." President Bush and others joined in, all morally outraged that anyone would accuse the administration of misleading us into war by faking a belief that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear and/or chemical and biological weapons.

Interestingly, the administration no longer claims that Mr. Hussein had such weapons at the time Mr. Bush led the country into war in order to eliminate them. "The flaws in intelligence are plain enough in hindsight," Mr. Cheney said Tuesday. So-called weapons of mass destruction were not the only argument for the war, but the administration thought they were a crucial argument at the time. So the administration now concedes that the country went to war on a false premise. Doesn't that mean that the war was a mistake no matter where the false premise came from?

Mr. Cheney and others insist that Mr. Bush couldn't possibly have misled anyone about WMD since everybody had assumed for years that there were WMD in Iraq. That's why any criticism of Mr. Bush on this point is corrupt, reprehensible, distasteful, odoriferous, infectious, etc.

But this indignation is belied by Mr. Cheney's remarks in the 2000 election campaign. In the vice-presidential debate, Mr. Cheney was happy to agree with Mr. Bush that Mr. Hussein's possession of WMD would be a good enough reason to "take him out." But he did not assume that Mr. Hussein already had such weapons. And he certainly did not assume that this view was the consensus.

Until last week, the anti-war position closely resembled the pro-war position in the ancient debate over Vietnam. That is: it was a mistake to get in, but now that we're in, we can't just cut-and-run. That was the logic on which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took over the Vietnam War four years after major American involvement began, and kept it going for another five.

American "credibility" depended on our keeping our word . In the end, all the United States wanted was a "decent interval" between our departure and the North Vietnamese triumph - and we didn't even get that. Thousands of Americans died in Vietnam after America's citizens and government were in general agreement that the war was a mistake.

We are now very close to that point of general agreement in the Iraq war. Do you believe that if Misters Bush, Cheney and company could turn back the clock, they would do this again? And now, thanks to Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, it is permissible to say, or at least to ask, "Why not just get out now?"

There are arguments against this - some good, some bad - but the worst is the one delivered by Mr. Cheney and others with their withering scorn. It is the argument that it is wrong to tell American soldiers risking their lives in a foreign desert that they are fighting for a mistake.

One strength of this argument is that it doesn't require defending the war itself. The logic applies equally whether the war is justified or not. Another strength is that the argument is true, in a way; it is a terrible thing to tell someone he or she is risking death in a mistaken cause. But it is more terrible actually to die in that mistaken cause.

The longer the war goes on, the more Americans and "allies" and Iraqis will die. That is not a slam-dunk argument for ending this foreign entanglement. But it is worth keeping in mind while you try to decide whether American credibility or Iraqi prosperity or Middle East stability can justify the cost in blood and treasure. And don't forget to factor in the likelihood that the war will actually produce these fine things.

The last man or woman to die in any war almost surely dies in vain: The outcome has been determined, if not certified. And he or she might die happier thinking that death came in a noble cause that will not be abandoned. But if it is not a noble cause, he or she might prefer not to die at all. Stifling criticism that might shorten the war is no favor to American soldiers. They can live without that kind of "respect."

Michael Kinsley is a commentator who lives in Seattle. His e-mail is

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