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Bush's Legacy of Cynicism

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

When George W. Bush surveys his presidency, he will see two wars commenced and none concluded, Osama bin Laden still on the loose, American prestige at record lows throughout the world, a military both broken and abused, and a country that in large part thinks its government is a liar. Guinness World Records will need a chapter for Bush alone.

It is, though, that bit about lack of trust in government that may be the most important and intractable. The others are correctable. For Iraq, there is a solution -- or at least an ending. For the military, there is the cure of more money and the fading of memories. For bin Laden, there is mortality itself. As for Afghanistan, who knows what will happen, since that country is where Western expectations go to die.

But this business about the people's trust in its government is destructive stuff. We see it played out now with the Senate resolution labeling the al-Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. The resolution itself is a pretty straightforward affair, stating a compelling case that the al-Quds Force has interfered in Iraq and caused the deaths of Americans. Whatever you may feel about the war in Iraq, no one gets to kill Americans with impunity.

As the resolution states, the American military has "evidence" -- the word is Gen. David Petraeus's -- of Iranian activity. "This is not intelligence," the general told Congress. "This is evidence, off computers that we captured, documents and so forth." Petraeus didn't get his stars for nothing. He knows the level of well-earned cynicism that the word "intelligence" now engenders in Congress. Evidence! He's talking evidence.

No matter. To a whole lot of people, Petraeus might as well have been talking dream interpretation. These people, most of them on the Democratic left, not only do not believe the evidence, they see the resolution as the old Bush administration rope-a-dope: the first step on the road to war with Iran. But Bush and Vice President Cheney don't need any resolution to make war -- "Resolution, resolution, I don't have to show you any stinkin' resolution," I imagine Cheney saying after seeing "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" -- and what the Senate affirmed the world has known for some time: The Revolutionary Guard is itself a terrorist outfit.

Even back in the Clinton administration, officials had no doubt that the Revolutionary Guard funded and supplied Hezbollah. They knew when the money went in and when bonuses were awarded after a successful terrorist operation. What's more, Argentine prosecutors -- not anyone in the Bush administration -- hold Iran responsible for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Whether the Revolutionary Guard in particular was behind it, I do not know. But Iranian operations of this sort are in its portfolio.

More than a senseless war with Iran -- certainly premature at the moment -- I fear the sort of malaise that came over America after the Vietnam War or, more to the point, the defeatism-turned-cynicism that crippled Britain and France following World War I. Both nations had been mauled and were exhausted. Britain's intellectual elite celebrated their pacifism; they would fight for neither king nor country. France had effectively been defeated in World War I. It was a nation of amputees and widows.

The situation today is hardly as dramatic or desperate. Yet years of Bush exaggerations, of Cheney lies, of dots that somehow failed to connect and intelligence that was false or misleading, of wars that go nowhere, of overblown and juvenile rhetoric -- "Bring 'em on" -- have made cynics of us all. That is the new realism.

But the true realism is that Iran is a menace -- potentially a great one -- and that its Revolutionary Guard is engaged in the dirty business of killing Americans and others. The fact that the Bush administration says so does not make it otherwise.

The Senate's resolution was a necessary step toward tightening sanctions on Iran -- a way to avoid war, not the overture to one. It was intended to send a message of resolve, but the message that went out showed instead that a good piece of America thinks that Bush is its prime enemy -- and Iran just another bee in his bonnet. This is the lamentable legacy of George W. Bush -- an abuse of trust that has weakened the country he swore to protect.

cohenr@washpost.com


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