War supporters can't escape the unpleasant realities of Iraq

March 08, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- There is good news in Iraq: The chaos of recent days has not led to all-out civil war. At least not yet.

Never mind that one of the major Shiite religious shrines was blown up Feb. 22. Never mind that about 500 Iraqis have died in the ensuing frenzy of sectarian violence. Never mind that if this is not civil war, it's not very far from it. In Iraq, the Bush administration has learned to set the bar low: Avoiding the worst possible outcome now passes for success.

For nearly three years, Americans have been told that we are making progress in bringing stability and democratic government to Iraq. But that state of affairs, like the horizon, keeps receding as we approach. Lately, the carnage has been waxing, not waning. Last month, for example, Iraq suffered 39 "multiple fatality bombings." The previous February, there were 18.

But the administration feigns nonchalance about events that once would have been considered disastrous.

Americans find it hard to justify the loss of American lives in a war we don't seem to know how to win, no matter how many insurgents we kill. In the latest poll, only 30 percent approve of how President Bush is handling Iraq.

Conservative commentators, who once identified themselves as the authentic voice of the people, are now blaming a weak-kneed citizenry for lacking the will to pay any price. But it's no surprise that Americans would not endorse a costly war for purposes that turn out to be bogus.

In the months leading up to the Iraq invasion, no one in the administration ever prepared them for the possibility - which was fully foreseeable - that we would encounter a widespread insurgency, incur thousands of casualties, spend hundreds of billions of dollars and be bogged down three years later with no end in sight.

Public acceptance was based on the assumption that the war would be cheap, quick and triumphant. Of course, Americans also thought back then that the invasion was necessary to get Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. If you tell people they're getting a hot fudge sundae and you give them raw cauliflower instead, you can hardly blame them for objecting.

War supporters can no longer pretend to represent the silent majority of Americans. So in the face of popular disenchantment, they now claim to be speaking for the men and women fighting in Iraq. The conservative group Progress for America has begun airing TV ads asserting that "American troops overwhelmingly support the mission President Bush has given them."

In this view, Americans have turned against the war only because the news media have denied them the truth about everything our military is achieving in Iraq - and anyone opposing the war is betraying the troops.

But that claim turns out to be fraudulent. A new poll by Zogby International finds that 29 percent of those serving in Iraq think the United States should leave immediately and 51 percent favor a pullout within six months. Fewer than one out of four soldiers agrees that we should remain as long as necessary.

More than 40 percent of those carrying out the mission Mr. Bush has given them say they are not sure what that mission is. The people with an up-close view of Iraq see things pretty much the same way as those forced to rely on the defeatist news media.

The news media, however, didn't make up the American casualties, the Iraqi casualties, the persistence of the insurgency, the stalemate over forming a new government or the other unforeseen products of the administration's policies. In this debate, war supporters are at odds not so much with critics as they are with reality.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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