By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
President Bush planted the seeds of the destruction of his Iraq policy before the war started. Salvaging the venture will require an unprecedented degree of candor and realism from a White House that was never willing to admit -- even to itself -- how large an undertaking it was asking the American people to buy into.
The notion that the president led the country into war through indirection or dishonesty is not the most damaging criticism of the administration. The worst possibility is that the president and his advisers believed their own propaganda. They did not prepare the American people for an arduous struggle because they honestly didn't expect one.
How else to explain the fact that the president and his lieutenants consistently played down the costs of the endeavor, the number of troops required, the difficulties of overcoming tensions among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds? Were they lying? The more logical explanation is that they didn't know what they were talking about.
Because the White House failed to prepare Americans for what was to come, the administration now faces a backlash. Over the weekend Bush said that the terrorists in Iraq were seeking to "weaken our nation's resolve." But the rising impatience about which Bush complains is a direct result of the administration's blithe dismissal of those who warned just how tough the going could get.
The assertion of the "Downing Street Memo" that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of invasion has understandably become a rallying point for the war's opponents. But in some ways more devastating are other recently disclosed documents in which British officials warned that "there was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." The British worried at the time that "U.S. military plans are virtually silent" on the fact that "a postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise."
The most damaging document supporting this claim is not secret, and remains one of the most important artifacts of the prewar debate. It is the transcript of "Meet the Press" from March 16, 2003, in which Vice President Cheney gave voice to the administration's optimistic assumptions that have now been laid low by reality.
Host Tim Russert asked whether "we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there" in Iraq "for several years in order to maintain stability." Cheney replied: "I disagree." He wouldn't say how many troops were needed, but he added that "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."
Russert asked: "If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"
Cheney would have none of it. "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. . . . The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want [is to] get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."
Russert: "And you are convinced the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites will come together in a democracy?"
Cheney: "They have so far." And the vice president concluded: "I think the prospects of being able to achieve this kind of success, if you will, from a political standpoint, are probably better than they would be for virtually any other country and under similar circumstances in that part of the world."
Was Cheney disguising the war's costs for political purposes? It's more likely that he believed every word he said. That suggests that the administration was not misleading the American people nearly so much as it was misleading itself.
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska says in the current issue of U.S. News & World Report that "the White House is completely disconnected from reality" and that "it's like they're just making it up as they go along." Unfortunately, the evidence of the past suggests that Hagel's acerbic formulation may be exactly right. Those who still see the invasion of Iraq as a noble mission don't need to protect the policy from the war's critics. They need to rescue it from its architects.