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Richard Cohen

Coming Clean About This War

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page A21

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" a young John Kerry asked back in 1971 about the war in Vietnam. Now it is all these years later and a different war is starting to look more and more like the one Kerry came to question.

Maybe it's time someone asked Kerry's question about the war in Iraq. I say "someone," because if John Kerry did so it would be tantamount to conceding the election. He would instantly undergo the sort of slimy attack on his patriotism that John Thune (rhymes with goon) visited on Tom Daschle, saying the Senate minority leader's criticism of President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war emboldened the enemy. How Thune, Daschle's opponent in the Senate race, restrained himself from saying Daschle had besmirched the memory of the fallen by saying they had died in vain is beyond me. That is the low blow that has yet to land.

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Fear of such an accusation is what once muted Kerry's criticism of the war, which has gotten progressively tougher and might have reached critical mass -- not to mention a level of long-awaited indignation -- with yesterday's speech in New York. The fact remains that this war, regardless of its origins in fear and myth, has been incompetently managed by the Bush administration, which is to say George Walker Bush. It is he -- not any critic of the war -- who has wasted lives in Iraq.

At one time I would have ruled out anything less than what might be called a U.S. victory in Iraq -- a secure nation governed by democratically elected rulers. I would have argued that no matter how the United States got into Iraq, it simply could not preemptively pull out. To do so would have great and grave consequences. It could plunge the country into civil war, Shiites against Sunnis and Kurds against them both. It would cause the country to disintegrate, maybe dividing into thirds -- a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south. Where things are not so ethnically neat, expect a bloodbath -- and expect outsiders to join in.

Now, though, we all have to face the prospect that Iraq will end up a mess no matter what. The administration's own national intelligence estimate raises the possibility that civil war may erupt by the end of next year. That's the direst prediction, but it now seems more likely than the one President Bush once envisioned: an Iraq with some sort of Jeffersonian democracy. That ain't about to happen and bit by bit, Bush has been scaling back his rhetoric. The truth is that we'd now settle for a pro-American strongman such as Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Both countries are essentially military dictatorships.

Who'd like to be the last man to die for that? I'm looking for a show of hands. But more than that, I'm looking for someone to raise questions that go to the heart of this matter of life and death. In this sense, Iraq is fast becoming Vietnam -- only the stakes are higher. (Vietnam had no oil.) It is also Vietnam in the way the presidential campaign is handling it. Once again the GOP is playing the odious patriotism card to silence dissent. As for Bush, he talks about Iraq with the same loopy unreality as he does his National Guard service. He's a fabulist.

I still don't think the United States can just pull out of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing. Would the threat of a U.S. pullout concentrate the minds of Iraqis so that they take control of their own destinies? Would the loss of the Yankee enemy cause Iraqis to blame actual bombers for the bombing -- and not the United States? Would a threatened U.S. withdrawal get the attention of NATO, not to mention neighboring Middle Eastern countries? Do they want Iraq in shambles? I doubt it.

Bush ought to come clean. What are his goals for Iraq now? Does he plan to bring in more troops if he wins in November or is he simply going to accept defeat, call it victory and bring the boys (and girls) home? If I were still in the uniform I once wore, I'd sure like to know. It's terrible to die for a mistake. It's even worse to die for a lie.

cohenr@washpost.com


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