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Colbert I. King

The Specter at Thursday's Party

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page A23

Come next Thursday Republicans will dance the night away, as is their due. To the victor goes the right to boogie, and George W. Bush and company earned their evening of fun and frolic at the polls in November. That said, there is a case to be made for a show of restraint and humility during the nation's 55th presidential inauguration. After all, when it comes to the war in Iraq, it's not as if accountability got a fair shake on Election Day.

That Bush won reelection is not at issue. He ran a tough campaign, used the powers of the incumbency to his full advantage and campaigned on issues that appealed to a majority of voters. He bested a Democratic team that had loads of money, an energized party and an experienced campaign organization. Victory belongs to him. He's got a right to strut. But this is not to say the Bush administration should get a pass on the wisdom of launching the Iraq war. It still has something to answer for.

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All over America, men, women and juveniles are hauled before the bar of justice to account for things that they may have done wrong. The system isn't perfect. But it's one way of holding people accountable for their behavior. That notion even applies to corporate America, where government and shareholder pressures are causing top executives and boards of directors to answer for their bad business decisions. And every day workers are handed pink slips for failing at their jobs.

Not so, however, in federal Washington, where the calamitous decision to invade Iraq was made. The toll from that costly mistake is still rising. More than 1,300 Americans dead, 10,000 wounded in action, nearly 200,000 National Guard and reservists mobilized, untold numbers of innocent Iraqi civilians killed. A foreign country, now crushed, is at war with itself, with killing and wounding daily fare. Billions of dollars are being spent for war, with more American blood and money expected to be spent in the days ahead. All because of a decision made in the White House to disarm Saddam Hussein, who, we and the rest of the world repeatedly were told, had biological and chemical weapons, was reconstituting Iraq's nuclear weapons program, and had ties to al Qaeda forces that were hungering for weapons of mass destruction to launch against us.

That view of a threatening Iraq was the primary basis for our invasion two years ago. That threat assessment, it now turns out, was wrong. Disastrously wrong. Heartbreakingly wrong.

And still the makers of America's worst foreign policy decision since Vietnam are going to kick up their heels next week at inaugural festivities expected to run up a $40 million tab. Somehow that just doesn't seem right.

But in the nation's capital, right has nothing to do with anything as long as you come out on top.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is honored on Monday, preached that some things are right and some things are wrong, eternally and absolutely so, no matter if everybody's doing the contrary. How that thought applies to the architects of the Iraq war depends, I suppose, upon where you come out on the decision to invade. But if the biblical injunction "you shall reap what you sow" is right, then the festive occasion to be enjoyed on Thursday may not be the Bush administration's ultimate harvest.

As for now, the people who were most responsible for those wrong and costly war decisions are reaping their rewards: a Medal of Freedom here, a secretary of state nomination there, the reappointment of a Pentagon war team that didn't get it right, a week of lavish parties for the big boss, paid out of the pockets of others.

And it's all going to happen in the days ahead without any display of remorse or regret, let alone any admission of error. That, perhaps, is what is most galling. The Iraqi invasion was no inadvertent slipup or clerical error. It wasn't a matter of stumbling into the right church but ending up in the wrong pew.

The March 2003 invasion was a gross misjudgment with enormous consequences for this country and other nations. That fact alone ought to cause at least a twinge of conscience or a sense of contrition among next week's celebrants. Instead we are going to be treated to extravagant galas and a high old time in Washington, as if the wreckage in Iraq and the smashed hopes of families are media-induced distractions hardly worth the concern of the nation's politically victorious.

Thursday is not a day for party-poopers or the vanquished. The folks who'll be taking over the town won the big prize, even if their big stars miscalculated and goofed up on the war. That's because in Washington, winning is all that matters.

kingc@washpost.com


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