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The Phony War Against the Critics

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, November 25, 2005

"One might also argue," Vice President Cheney said in a speech on Monday, "that untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort." That would certainly be an ugly and demagogic argument, were one to make it. After all, if untruthful charges against the president hurt the war effort (by undermining public support and soldiers' morale), then those charges will hurt the war effort even more if they happen to be true. So one would be saying in effect that any criticism of the president is essentially treason.

Lest one fear that he might be saying that, Cheney immediately added, "I'm unwilling to say that" -- "that" being what he had just said. He generously granted critics the right to criticize (as did the president this week). Then he resumed hurling adjectives like an ape hurling coconuts at unwanted visitors. "Dishonest." "Reprehensible." "Corrupt." "Shameless." President Bush and others joined in, all morally outraged that anyone would accuse the administration of misleading us into war by faking a belief that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear and/or chemical and biological weapons.

Interestingly, the administration no longer claims that Hussein actually had such weapons at the time Bush led the country into war in order to eliminate them. "The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight," Cheney said on Monday. So-called WMD (weapons of mass destruction) were not the only argument for the war, but the administration thought they were a crucial argument at the time. So the administration now concedes that the country went to war on a false premise. Doesn't that mean that the war was a mistake no matter where the false premise came from?

Cheney and others insist that Bush couldn't possibly have misled anyone about WMD since everybody had assumed for years, back into the Clinton administration, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That's why any criticism of Bush on this point is corrupt, reprehensible, distasteful, odiferous, infectious and so on. But this indignation is belied by Cheney's own remarks in the 2000 election. In the vice presidential debate, for example, Cheney was happy to agree with Bush that Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction would be a good enough reason to "take him out." But he did not assume that Hussein already had such weapons. And he certainly did not assume that this view was the general consensus. "We'll have to see if that happens," he said. "It's unfortunate we find ourselves in a position where we don't know for sure what might be transpiring inside Iraq. I certainly hope he's not regenerating that kind of capability."

If you're looking for revisionist history, don't waste your time on the war's critics. Google up Cheney's bitter critique, in the 2000 campaign, of President Bill Clinton's military initiatives, specifically the need for more burden sharing by allies and a sharply defined "exit strategy." At the time, there were about 11,000 American troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, working alongside about 55,000 from allied countries. If only!

Until last week, the antiwar position in the debate over Iraq closely resembled the pro-war position in the ancient debate over Vietnam. That is: It was a mistake to get in, but now that we're in we can't just cut and run. That was the logic on which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took over the Vietnam War four years after major American involvement began and kept it going for another four. American "credibility" depended on our keeping our word, however foolish that word might have been. In the end, all the United States wanted was a "decent interval" between our departure and the North Vietnamese triumph -- and we didn't even get that. Thousands of Americans died in Vietnam after America's citizens and government were in general agreement that the war was a mistake.

We are now very close to that point of general agreement in the Iraq war. Do you believe that if Bush, Cheney and company could turn back the clock, they would do this again? And now, thanks to Rep. John Murtha, it is permissible to say, or at least to ask, "Why not just get out now? Or at least soon, on a fixed schedule?" There are arguments against this -- some good, some bad -- but the worst is the one delivered by Cheney and others with their most withering scorn. It is the argument that it is wrong to tell American soldiers risking their lives in a foreign desert that they are fighting for a mistake.

One strength of this argument is that it doesn't require defending the war itself. The logic applies equally whether the war is justified or not. Another strength is that the argument is true, in a way: It is a terrible thing to tell someone he or she is risking death in a mistaken cause. But it is more terrible actually to die in that mistaken cause.

The longer the war goes on, the more Americans, "allies" and Iraqis will die. That is not a slam-dunk argument for ending this foreign entanglement. But it is worth keeping in mind while you try to decide whether American credibility or Iraqi prosperity or Middle East stability can justify the cost in blood and treasure. And don't forget to factor in the likelihood that the war will actually produce these fine things.

The last man or woman to die in any war almost surely dies in vain: The outcome has been determined, if not certified. And he or she might die happier thinking that death came in a noble cause that will not be abandoned. But if it is not a noble cause, he or she might prefer not to die at all. Stifling criticism that might shorten the war is no favor to American soldiers. They can live without that kind of "respect."

kinsleym@washpost.com

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