Our Leaders' Depressing Optimism

By Richard Cohen
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 21, 2006; 12:00 AM

After he resigned as Israel's prime minister in 1983, Menachem Begin became a recluse. Much had gone wrong in his life, including the death of his wife, but he was also being blamed for Israel's invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon -- a quagmire in the making. He sunk into a depression. In contrast, American leaders in similar circumstances issue chirpy statements and write nonsense op-ed articles about Iraq. It is enough to make everyone else depressed.

The latest chirpy statements were issued Sunday by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, both of whom live in a parallel universe where news of what's happening in Iraq does not reach them. Cheney cannot even see the truth in retrospect, maintaining on "Face the Nation" that his predictions that U.S. forces in Iraq would be "greeted as liberators" or that the insurgency was in its "last throes" were "basically accurate." Cheney and Bush are sometimes called liars by their most severe critics, but how can you lie when you don't even know the truth?

Sunday's third administration spokesman was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In The Washington Post, he wrote a cheer-up, buck-up, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel op-ed piece in which, he would have you know, things were going our way in Iraq: "Now is the time for resolve, not retreat." How does he know? History tells him so. By history, Rumsfeld does not mean "daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack." No siree. "History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately."

Rumsfeld's particular and peculiar burden is that he heads the nation's military, and soldiers are obsessed with history. They are always trying to find out what went wrong since, clearly, mistakes cost lives. These military histories relating to Iraq are even now being compiled and some of them have fallen into the hands of journalists. What they show, in essence, is not only that Rumsfeld sorely underestimated how many troops it would take to subdue Iraq, but he wanted nothing to do with whatever happened after victory was declared. He was not a nation-builder.

Before the war -- and for a long time thereafter -- the Bush administration from top down was decidedly against nation-building. Bush had said so over and over again, and so had his foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice. "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten," she said back in October 2000. Now, of course, U.S. troops are trying to build a nation in Iraq -- a clear case of too little, too late made even harder by the looting and vandalism that accompanied the occupation of Baghdad and other major cities.

It just so happens that Rice made that statement about the 82nd Airborne to Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times. Along with retired Gen. Bernard Trainor, Gordon has written "Cobra II," a book that partially relies on military histories to detail much of what went wrong in Iraq, including the administration's refusal to come to grips with nation-building. The Bushies simply didn't like it and -- even more to the point -- they were convinced that anything the (reluctant) nation-builder Bill Clinton did was wrong. They chose Kosovo and Bosnia as lessons, seeing them as mini-quagmires instead of the successes they were (still no war there). The war in Afghanistan was the way to go, they insisted. In a speech Rumsfeld gave about a month before the U.S. launched the war in Iraq, he said Afghanistan was his model -- in, out. He got that only half right.

Much of the furious opposition to the war is moral in nature. But would the war still have the power to enrage if Bush had been right on May 1, 2003, when he effectively declared "Mission Accomplished"? On that day, the fatality count was 139. Unfortunately, more than 2,100 deaths followed, most of them attributable to a dogged adherence to dogma: a cockamamie war plan and a disdain for nation- building. As for Bush, Rice and, of course, Dick Cheney, their responsibility is greater than Rumsfeld's. They could have said no. They failed miserably. It would be good if, just once, they had the good taste to concede as much.

Begin invaded Lebanon to make Israel safer. It was a mistake, and the waste of lives weighed on him. In the same way, America invaded Iraq to make itself safer. It has been a mistake, but the waste of lives seems not to have dented the Bush administration's insistence that everything was done right and only the critics are wrong. In psychology, this is called denial. In politics, it's called an outrage.

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