Friday :: Jun 4, 2004

Even Conservatives Can See The Lies


by pessimist

Bush, Rumsfeld, misinterpret our war history

Weighed down by woe in Iraq, President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have been seeking consolation in the burdens endured by presidents and commanders in past wars. The message they've been sending lately is that Americans should be patient, resolute and willing to accept sacrifice, just as our forebears were.

The lesson Bush and Rumsfeld have drawn is that wars are difficult and often controversial, and that great leaders stay the course in spite of obstacles. They also want to suggest that today's critics will be proven just as wrong as those who went before. But the Civil War and World War II actually hold lessons that bode ill for the administration's policy in Iraq.

Lincoln's central objective was nothing more or less than preserving the Union. He saw, and his countrymen agreed, that secession represented a mortal danger. If a state could leave whenever its people tired of being part of the United States, the American experiment in self-government would be a failure.

World War II was for equally large stakes. Americans were not willing to go to war with Japan to free China and Korea from colonial rule, or to save Germany's neighbors from being swallowed up, or to rescue Jews from slaughter. It was only when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on us that we mobilized to fight.

Those were not wars of choice. They were not undertaken to pre-empt alleged dangers, to bring salvation to oppressed peoples, to set an example of democracy to other nations, or to cow potential aggressors. They were about government's gravest and most basic responsibility: national survival.

For all the efforts to depict Saddam Hussein as "a threat of unique urgency," as Bush claimed before the war, the danger was largely imaginary. Iraq had not attacked the United States, had not threatened to attack the United States and didn't have the means to attack the United States--even if Saddam Hussein had possessed those fabled weapons of mass destruction, which it appears he didn't.

That's why the administration has offered so many other justifications for going into Iraq. But even its own conduct confirms that no vital national interest was ever at stake in Iraq. If it had been, Rumsfeld would not have kept the number of troops so low or planned for a speedy departure.

Nor would the administration have insisted on proceeding with tax cuts despite the high cost of this mission. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt raised taxes to pay for their wars, and the public went along.

For the American people to accept substantial outlays of blood and treasure, they have to believe the sacrifice is being made for a truly imperative purpose--not a merely desirable one. They also have to believe that the mission can be accomplished. They could believe those things for World War II and the Civil War, but they have deep doubts this time, and with good reason.

If Bush and Rumsfeld keep reading, though, they may get an insight into the resistance we face in Iraq. When Union soldiers asked a captured Confederate what he was fighting for, recounts historian Shelby Foote, he replied:

"I'm fighting because you're down here."

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