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Blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel
The American public is increasingly disillusioned by the Iraq war, and Bush's triumphalism only makes things worse
Thursday June 23, 2005
On June 21, network news reported that the Pentagon had claimed that 47 enemy operatives had been killed in Operation Spear in western Iraq. Last month, the Pentagon declared 125 had been killed in Operation Matador, near the Syrian border. "We don't do body counts on other people," Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, stated in November 2003.
On January 29 this year, the day before the Iraqi election, President Bush announced that it was the "turning point". On May 2 2003, he stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln behind a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" and the next day proclaimed that the "mission is completed". On June 2 this year, he declared: "Our mission is clear there, as well, and that is to train the Iraqis so they can do the fighting."
Last week, Bush retreated to his ultimate justification, that Iraq was invaded because Saddam Hussein was involved with the terrorists behind the September 11 attacks, a notion believed by a majority of those who voted for him in 2004: "We went to war because we were attacked ..."
On March 16 2003, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, prophesied: "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators ... I think it will go relatively quickly." Only last month Cheney assured us that the insurgency in Iraq is in "the last throes". On June 18, General William Webster, the US commander in Baghdad, said: "Certainly saying anything about 'breaking the back' or 'about to reach the end of the line' or those kinds of things do not apply to the insurgency at this point."
The war has reached a tipping point - not in Iraq, but in the US. Every announcement of a "turning point" heightens the rising tide of public disillusionment. Every reference to September 11 strains the administration's credibility. Every revelation of how "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" for war, as in the Downing Street memo, shatters even Republicans' previously implacable faith.
On June 21, a Gallup poll reported that Bush's approval rating was collapsing along with support for the war. Only 39% of Americans support it. "The decline in support for the war is found among Republicans and independents, with little change among Democrats." (Since March, Republican support has fallen 11 points to 70%.)
"They're starting to talk numbers again," Pat Lang remarked to me about the return of body counts. Lang is the former chief at the Defence Intelligence Agency for the Middle East, south Asia and counter-terrorism. "They were determined not to do that. But they can't provide a measurement to tell themselves they're doing well. As you know, it means nothing."
Lang, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, observes: "For almost all of the war, Vietnam was a better situation than Iraq. During the conduct of the war the security situation was far better than this." The Iraqi elections are "irrelevant to the outcome of the war because the people who voted were the people who stood to gain".
Iran is the long-term winner. "Iran intends to pull the Shia state of Iraq into its orbit. You can be sure that Iranian revolutionary guards are honeycombed throughout Iraq's intelligence to make sure things don't get out of hand." About the "euphoria" after the election, especially echoed by the press corps, Lang simply says: "Laughable, comical, pathetic."
Bush's Iraq syndrome is a reinvention of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam syndrome. In December 1967, Walt Rostow, LBJ's national security adviser, famously declared about the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese: "Their casualties are going up at a rate they cannot sustain ... I see light at the end of the tunnel." The official invitation to the New Year's Eve party at the US embassy in Saigon read: "Come see the light at the end of the tunnel." The Tet offensive struck a month later.
"Even when what happened was really more positive than it seemed to be - the Tet offensive in 1968 was a military disaster for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army - no one believed it because there was no light at the end of tunnel," Harry McPherson, who was President Johnson's counsel in the White House, told me. For a modern instance, McPherson cited the statement this week by Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska: "The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."
Bush's light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel vision can only accelerate the cycle of disillusionment. His instinctive triumphalism inevitably has a counter-productive effect. His refusal to insist on responsibility for blunders - indeed, rewarding and honouring their perpetrators - enshrines impunity and hubris.
His doctrine of presidential infallibility, the election being his only "moment of accountability", can no longer be sustained by reference to September 11. His defence of the abuse and torture of detainees at Guantánamo and other prisons in violation of laws formerly upheld by the US blots out his attempts to explain the purity of his motives.
In The Quiet American, Graham Greene's 1955 novel on the wages of naive arrogance in Vietnam, the world-weary British journalist Fowler remarks to Pyle, the US agent, with the best of intentions: "Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are ... I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle."
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is author of The Clinton Wars