The organizers of this year's Republican National Convention engaged in some very shrewd rewriting of history. If you watched carefully, you noticed a narrative of the war on terrorism in which most of the past two years disappeared.
Viewers got enormous detail on the bravery displayed by Americans after the attacks of Sept. 11. But there was no pause to discuss how the Bush administration chose to sell the war in Iraq, how so many of its assumptions went haywire or why our strategy was so flawed that we have now conceded large parts of the Sunni Triangle to our enemies. There were no reminders of "Mission Accomplished" or "bring 'em on."
Of course the Bush team wants voters to shield their eyes from the specifics of its record in Iraq. Otherwise, Americans just might hold the president accountable.
So President Bush and Vice President Cheney get us to look the other way by focusing on the vague question of which candidate is "tough" enough to handle terrorists. This leads to such elevated forms of discourse as a convention video comparing John Kerry with a beret-wearing French poodle sock puppet named Fifi, and, this week, Cheney's scabrous observation that if voters "make the wrong choice" in this election, "then the danger is that we'll get hit again."
Faced with a Bush campaign based on amnesia and demagoguery, Kerry gave his big Iraq speech Wednesday at Cincinnati's Union Terminal, the same place Bush gave an October 2002 address justifying a U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein. If Kerry is lucky, his choice of venue just might encourage a look back at Bush's record.
Bush's speech of two years ago can only be read as an effort to scare our country into war. Iraq, Bush said, "is seeking nuclear weapons. . . . The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons. . . . We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States."
And, oh, yes, Bush couldn't resist touting, through loose association, the supposed link between Hussein and Sept. 11 that the Kean-Hamilton commission has discredited. "We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy -- the United States of America," Bush said.
Why is it that what Bush told the American people before the war is no longer a live issue?
If Bush's rationale for war no longer holds up, neither does the administration's analysis of the aftermath. In his new book, "The Folly of Empire," John Judis cites a February 2003 Army War College report on Iraqi reconstruction.
Presciently, the report declared: "Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will increase as the occupation continues. A force initially viewed as liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should an unwelcome occupation continue for a prolonged time. Occupation problems may be especially acute if the United States must implement the bulk of the occupation itself rather than turn these duties over to a postwar international force."
But the administration seemed to think it was wiser than a bunch of smart military guys. On "Meet the Press" in March 2003, Cheney blithely dismissed Tim Russert when the host asked what would happen if "we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors." Would the American people be "prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"
Not to worry, said Cheney: "I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators." Cheney dismissed Gen. Eric Shinseki's view of how many troops an occupation would require: "To suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement." Have we forgotten this, too?
Many also forget the context of Bush's famous "bring 'em on" line of July 2, 2003. It was in direct answer to a question about whether, in light of rising casualty rates, the administration might want to get "larger powers" to join the U.S. effort in Iraq. Bush said he wasn't worried. After the "bring 'em on" line, his next sentence was: "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
In judging whether this administration has the right answers to terrorism and war, voters can rely on the images. Or they can rely on the record.