"It doesn't matter," insisted the war's enthusiasts, when Saddam Hussein's allegedly massive arsenal of forbidden weapons was not found. It didn't matter, these same sages claimed, that the Bush administration had exaggerated evidence and misled America and the world about the justification for invading Iraq. It wouldn't matter, they chirped, that the Pentagon had ignored ample warnings about the likely postwar conditions in Iraq and failed to guard against rampant looting and criminality with adequate preparation. It didn't matter that our leaders had prevaricated about the mythical Iraqi nuclear program, the mobile bioweapons laboratories, the yellowcake from Niger, the unmanned aerial vehicles, and the whole panoply of fearsome but nonexistent reasons to wage war.
None of these unpleasant discoveries could possibly keep the "mission" from being accomplished in Iraq, the war's sponsors argued, and anyone who insisted on discussing those facts was just trying to score partisan points. The only thing that mattered, they assured us, was that we freed the Iraqis from torture and murder and injustice. America's cause was just and American hearts were pure.
In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, we are now learning just how mistaken and how dangerous those Pollyanna predictions were. At a moment of terrible shame for the United States, the credibility squandered by the White House in the months leading up to the war has left the nation morally defenseless before the world. The only way left to defend the disastrous war was as a war of liberation, to free Iraqis from shame and torture. Once it is shown that we imposed shame and torture, too, the last rationale for the war is gone. When George W. Bush grudgingly apologized for the crimes committed in our name, who believed that he was sorry? When Bush and the members of his cabinet and general staff promise to take responsibility and do justice, who believes that they will fulfill those pledges? Americans may believe, but the hearts and minds of other people around the world -- especially Arabs and Muslims -- are closed.
The president and the vice president can proclaim Donald Rumsfeld's greatness, but their endorsements will do little to enhance his reputation now. In March 2003, Rumsfeld made the most definitive statement possible about weapons of mass destruction. "We know where they are," he said on television. "They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." Two months later, the secretary of defense claimed that U.S. troops had found and seized the alleged mobile bioweapons labs. He still told anyone who listened that our troops would find the outlawed weapons, that it was "just a matter of time" and that "patience will prove to be a virtue."
The world is still waiting, of course, with perhaps less patience than Rumsfeld would consider virtuous. Meanwhile, his department's policies regarding troop strength and assignments, its diplomatic relationships with America's coalition allies, its marshaling of protective equipment for our troops, and its management of private contractors, can all be described most politely as inadequate. It is hard to know why he should be entrusted with overseeing investigation and reform of abuses that he and his Pentagon appointees apparently ignored until they were exposed in the media. Somehow, he found it within himself to express annoyance that anyone had dared to leak Gen. Antonio Taguba's "classified" report on Abu Ghraib, which he described as an illegal act. In response to questions from senators about the Red Cross report on the prison abuses, Rumsfeld suggested that the incriminating document should be withheld from public scrutiny.
Indeed, Rumsfeld personifies the ruinous combination of deception, arrogance and incompetence that has so badly damaged the war effort from the very beginning. His role has been so ruinous, in fact, that even some of the most enthusiastically hawkish pundits, such as George Will and Andrew Sullivan, are belatedly coming to recognize that utopian dreams of democratic imperialism have turned into a nightmare of colonial occupation. But the secretary of defense reflects nothing more or less than the president's policies and attitudes, which is why he still has his position.
How and when American troops should be extricated from Iraq remains a matter for intense debate. It is not at all clear that a precipitous pullout, leaving a torn nation to the mercies of warlords and armed mullahs, would serve the interests of Iraqis, Americans or the rest of the world. But what becomes clearer with each day is that we are in deep trouble -- and that the Bush administration possesses neither the will nor the ability to prevent the worst consequences of a failed policy. They have given Osama bin Laden a victory that he could never have won for himself.