On the losing side of the divide

Bush and Cheney are engaging in "us against them" politics on Iraq. Is it lonely in there?

Published November 17, 2005 5:45PM (EST)

The White House likes to insist that it doesn't concern itself with polls. We never believed that before, but now we're starting to wonder. How else can we explain the choice to engage in us-against-them politics on the question of Iraq?

The president's protestations notwithstanding, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have made a career out of dividing, not uniting. They came to Washington in 2000 on the losing side of the popular vote, and they did less than nothing once in office to bring the country back together. The attacks of 9/11 did that for them. Remember the 90 percent approval rating? Remember "We are all Americans"? It took time -- maybe a year too long -- but Bush and Cheney managed to squander every inch of that with divisive judicial nominations, with attacks on the environment, with cynical plays on civil rights and gay marriage, with a war that was neither necessary nor wise.

And here they are again. Revelation after revelation after revelation after revelation after revelation has shown that the Bush administration was less than truthful in its march to war, and now the president and his surrogates have struck back, not by addressing the substance of the accusations but by questioning the patriotism of those who are making them. Sen. Chuck Hagel -- a Republican -- called them out on it earlier this week, and he did it with remarkable eloquence:

"The Bush Administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them," Hagel said in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations. "Suggesting that to challenge or criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democracy nor what this country has stood for, for over 200 years ... Vietnam was a national tragedy partly because members of Congress failed their country, remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the administrations in power until it was too late. Some of us who went through that nightmare have an obligation to the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam to not let that happen again. To question your government is not unpatriotic -- to not question your government is unpatriotic. America owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices."

The president was asked this morning in Korea whether he agreed with Hagel or with the vice president, who said yesterday that criticisms of the administration's march to war are "dishonest and reprehensible."

"The vice president," Bush said.

Lines are drawn, sides are taken. Stand with the president or stand accused of turning your back on the troops stuck fighting his war. "Our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out," Cheney said yesterday. "American soldiers and Marines are out there every day in dangerous conditions and desert temperatures -- conducting raids, training Iraqi forces, countering attacks, seizing weapons, and capturing killers -- and back home a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie."

But it's not a "few opportunists" who are making that suggestion. It's a majority of the American people. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 57 percent of those asked said they believe that the president "deliberately misled people to make the case for war." In a recent Newsweek poll, 52 percent said they think Cheney deliberately "misused or manipulated" prewar intelligence.

"Us against them" works when there's a lot of "us" and not so many "them." But that's not how it is anymore. Bush and Cheney can circle the wagons and point their fingers at those on the outside. But it's small group inside the circle now, a much larger and still growing one outside. A substantial majority of the American people now believe that George W. Bush lied about the reasons for war. Keep forcing the country to take sides, Mr. President, and someone is going to be marginalized in the process. It isn't going to be them.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room