Look in the mirror, Mr. President

A Reaganite Republican says Bush should apologize for his grievous failures on Iraq.

Published August 1, 2005 2:55PM (EDT)

In the wake of the London bombings, President Bush continues his attempts to rally public support for his policies in Iraq. Instead, he should apologize to Americans for those policies.

Republicans have been demanding a lot of apologies from Democrats recently. On "Meet the Press" on July 17, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said Democrats should apologize to Karl Rove for their "smear campaign" against him. Republicans also pushed Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to recant his ill-considered comparison of Guantánamo jailers to Nazis. And the GOP demanded that Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean repent of his virulent attacks on Republicans. But it is the Republican president who has the most to apologize for.

Not that the Democrats don't have anything to apologize for. I started my career in Washington working for Ronald Reagan and would happily do the same again. But for reasons that I offered in a column in Salon last fall (which subsequently was featured in a "Doonesbury" cartoon), the current president is no conservative, at least as that philosophy has traditionally been understood. His grievous failures dramatically overshadow those of his political adversaries.

President Bush took the United States into war based on a falsehood. His appointees talked about mushroom clouds, Iraq's stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and unmanned aerial vehicles that could hit America.

Vice President Cheney claimed that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11. Various administration officials, from the president on down, declared that the Saddam regime was a "threat," a "significant threat," the "most dangerous threat of our time," a "threat to the region and the world," a "threat to the security of free nations," a "serious threat to our country, to our friends and to our allies," a "unique and urgent threat" and a "serious and mounting threat."

None of these claims was true. Bush and his appointees had ample reason for doubt. Indeed, as John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman of the New Republic pointed out, "Unbeknownst to the public, the administration faced equally serious opposition within its own intelligence agencies." The CIA, the State Department's intelligence bureau, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Energy, the Air Force and the International Atomic Energy Agency all disputed particular administration claims.

If the president's insistence on believing what he wanted to believe had only cost America $200 billion, it would be bad enough. But more than 1,750 servicemen and women have been killed, nearly 14,000 have been wounded (many of them maimed), and Iraq, as even President Bush admits, has become a vortex of international terrorism. The president should apologize.

The failings of U.S. intelligence -- the assumption that Iraq possessed a wide variety of threatening weapons when it in fact had none -- were manifold. The Senate Intelligence Committee report noted that "most of the major key judgments" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."

Yet the president didn't address this issue until the 9/11 commission prepared to announce its findings as the 2004 election approached. And he has yet to hold anyone accountable for anything, other than in the few cases in which people told him what he didn't want to hear.

Once the truth came out, the president could have taken responsibility and acknowledged that he'd been wrong. Instead, in his 2004 State of the Union speech, Bush devoted just two sentences to WMD, noting the presence of "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." The administration mantra became: "Never mind the WMD, Saddam was a bad guy."

The administration's loss of domestic credibility and America's loss of international credibility have been huge. The president should apologize.

Although the administration evidently made its decision to go to war months before it actually invaded Iraq, it failed to prepare for the inevitable consequences of loosing the dogs of war. Most incredibly, it failed to contemplate the possibility of sustained opposition -- the sort of resistance routinely engendered by foreign occupations -- with officials from the vice president on down dismissing the prospects of a violent insurgency. The administration deployed inadequate forces to suppress violent criminals and insurgents alike, neglected to secure sensitive sites after Saddam was overthrown, and provided too little body armor and too few armored vehicles to protect U.S. forces. Even now, two years later, the latter problem continues. The Boston Globe recently reported that Marines in western Iraq lack not only armored vehicles but also heavy machine guns and communications equipment.

And Iraqis' concern over Washington's ultimate intentions makes a bad situation worse. Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, observes that "part of the recruitment for this insurgency is fueled by the perception that we are an occupying power and have no intention of leaving." All Americans, and particularly the troops in the field, are paying a very high price for the administration's blunders.

Even as the occupation turned violent, senior officials refused to level with the American people. Turning points and new dawns were constantly said to beckon: the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam Hussein's capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the Iraqi election, the formation of a government.

New assaults are now routinely claimed to have broken the back of the insurgents. On the eve of the president's June 28 speech attempting to rally American support for his policies, Dick Cheney opined that the insurgency was in its "last throes." The administration similarly makes extravagant claims about the readiness of Iraqis to take over their own security. He's "pleased with the progress," Bush says.

But military officials are far more circumspect. Gen. John Abizaid, the commander in the Persian Gulf, says the insurgency appears to have the same strength as it had six months ago. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified before Congress in April that "the insurgency has grown in size and complexity over the last year." The U.S. military's spokesman in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, says that "military options or military operations" aren't going to solve the problem of terrorism in Iraq: "It's going to be settled in the political process."

Soldiers doing the fighting say much the same. Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who helps train Iraqi security personnel, explains: "We can't kill them all. When I kill one I create three." Nor will loyal Iraqi security forces quickly solve the problem. "I know the party line," observes 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato of Long Island, N.Y. "But on the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave. And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then."

The president should apologize.

Finding it tough to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq on their own terms, administration officials constantly point to 9/11. "I will not leave the American people at the mercy of the Iraqi dictator and his weapons," the president said just days before he ordered an invasion. He went on to cite Saddam's "terrorist connections." The vice president long linked Iraq to 9/11, even after the claim had been discredited everywhere else. The bipartisan 9/11 commission concluded that there was "no collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida.

In his recent speech Bush made the only slightly less misleading argument that "we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand." And in a mid-June radio address he opined: "We went to war because we were attacked, and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens." He added, "Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home."

But we were not attacked by Iraq. And jihadists are making their stand in Iraq only because U.S. forces are there. No former Baathist would think of flying to the United States to kill Americans, and most of the foreign fighters in Iraq could never make it to America, whatever their personal inclinations. Even worse, the Iraq conflict is creating terrorists -- and creating them faster than coalition forces so far have been able to kill them.

Iraq has been turned into the central front of terrorism, preparing killers who may eventually find targets elsewhere around the world, including in America. The CIA warns that Iraq may prove to be more important than Afghanistan once was in training deadly militants. The CIA's National Intelligence Council reports: The "dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq" to other nations will create new threats in the form of mutations of the al-Qaida network. Jihadists already have begun returning to their home countries, including in Europe.

The president should apologize.

The result of the administration's war of choice has been to make America far less secure. The president has involved the nation in a conflict that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now warns could run a dozen years. Yet the military is badly stretched, with no relief in sight. The reserves are breaking, and recruiting is off even for the active forces: "We are getting toward the end of our capacity," warns retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. It is hard to imagine the volunteer military surviving many years more of this war.

Unfortunately, Bush gives no evidence of recognizing his mistakes, let alone admitting his responsibility. The Republican-controlled Congress is unwilling to hold him accountable. Even longtime conservative activists have been largely quiet. Other than a few courageous souls at small publications such as the American Conservative and Chronicles, most conservatives have said nothing publicly. They apparently hate the Democrats too much or fear the loss of power too greatly to break ranks.

Political apologies tend to be cheap, exacted only under duress and offered to quell criticism rather than to right a wrong. But as Republicans busily demand public repentance from their adversaries, they should look in the mirror -- the president most of all.

By Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. A former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he served as a special assistant to President Reagan.

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Al-qaida Cia Howard Dean Iraq War Richard J. Durbin D-ill.