Stay the Course? What Course?

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, June 16, 2006

Fresh from his triumphal visit to Baghdad -- a place so dangerous he had to sneak in without even telling the Iraqi prime minister -- George W. Bush is full of new resolve to stay the course in his open-ended "global war on terror." That leaves the rest of us to wonder, in sadness and frustration, just what that course might be and where on earth it can possibly lead.

This is a "war" in which three men held for years without due process at the Guantanamo Bay prison kill themselves by hanging, and their jailers are so unnerved and self-absorbed that they see the suicides as an attack. Rear Adm. Harry Harris's all-about-me lament -- "I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us" -- was worthy of delivery from Oprah's couch.

Bush claimed at his news conference the other day that he'd "like to close Guantanamo" if only the people being held there weren't so "darn dangerous." These bad people, in other words, are forcing him to hold them indefinitely under conditions that mock international norms. But if the inmates are indeed beyond redemption, why order them to be hog-tied and force-fed when they go on hunger strikes? Why not just let them starve? Why freak out when three of the evildoers hang themselves? Why not pass out rope and tell the rest to bring it on?

This is a "war" in which the United States drops two 500-pound bombs with the express intent of assassinating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group that wouldn't have existed if Bush hadn't decided to invade. But when the world learns that Zarqawi briefly survived the bombing, and rumors circulate that U.S. forces shot him dead, officials rush to release an autopsy report showing that the butcher with a $25 million bounty on his head died from blast injuries. An American medic, we are told, was about to administer first aid when Zarqawi mumbled something unintelligible and expired.

Why do your best to kill an enemy leader -- a bad, bad man, the worst of the worst -- and then try to revive him? Didn't you want him dead?

In this amorphous, open-ended "war" that we're spending precious lives and billions of dollars to wage, the rules of engagement seem to be shoot first and apologize later.

We're sorry if U.S. Marines massacred 24

civilians in Haditha. We're even more sorry than we were after U.S. military personnel tortured and humiliated those prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Bush's stalwart ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is sorry if London police, conducting an

anti-terrorist raid this month, shot and wounded an innocent man whose only "crime" was to come downstairs in his underwear to see who was breaking into his house. But not as sorry as Blair was after the London subway bombings, when commandos shot dead an innocent Brazilian electrician whom they mistook for a possible, potential, just-might-be terrorist.

Nobody's sorry, though, about secret CIA prisons or extralegal detention or interrogation by brutal "waterboarding" or an Orwellian blanket of domestic surveillance. After all, we're at "war."

The military announced yesterday that the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has reached 2,500, another of those awful, round-number milestones. It is widely expected that the new Iraqi government will consider an amnesty for some of the insurgents who killed some of those American servicemen and women -- drawing a distinction between roadside bombs placed by Sunni Muslims in "resistance" to the U.S. occupation and those placed by foreign al-Qaeda jihadists. If this happens, we'll have taught the Iraqis well. They'll be saying "pardon me" just like their American tutors.

Today's generation of jihadists was forged in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation. How long will the next generation, being forged in Iraq fighting the American occupation, be with us?

Iraq is just one theater in Bush's "war." Elsewhere, Afghanistan is once again ablaze as the resurgent Taliban counterattacks. Somalia is coming under the sway of an Islamic militia that may harbor al-Qaeda militants. America's popularity in the world continues to fall.

But George W. Bush forges ahead, trying vainly to kill a poisonous, retrograde ideology with bullets and bombs. His "war" is self-perpetuating, and no one even knows what victory would look like. Long after he's gone, we'll still be looking for a way to end the mess he began.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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